Grandma’s Turkey Stuffing: Grist for a Memoir?

by Jan Simpson

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, a calm oasis between the frantic back-to-school rush and the December holiday frenzy. In most families, children ask, “What’s for dinner?” My children ask: “Who’s cooking tonight?” If the answer is their father or grandmother, they’ll make every effort to be home. If it’s me who’s cooking, they’re less than enthusiastic.

Last Tuesday, my son arrived home from college just a few hours before his grandmother arrived with my husband from New York City. On Wednesday morning, we prepared our favorite holiday recipes: a cranberry and apple compote, sweet potato casserole, Grandma’s succulent zucchini-and-peppers dish, and her turkey stuffing. Minutes turned into hours as my mother-in-law stood by the stove, patiently instructing my daughter and me on the secrets to our favorite dishes. Mouth-watering aromas filled the kitchen as I recorded Grandma’s instructions in a cookbook that hides recipes taped among the printed pages, with hand-written notes scribbled in the margins. As she and my daughter bent heads over the stove, I used my cellphone surreptitiously to snap a photograph, and later, despite Grandma’s protests, I took several more.

On Thanksgiving, I served a common red wine, Barbara D’Asti, bottled near the Italian city where my American-born mother-in-law lived from age 7 through her early twenties, years filled with the untold horrors of war as a child and teenager during World War II.  As I had hoped, the wine prompted joyful stories about her childhood spent on her grandfather’s farm, stomping grapes with her bare feet, as the family bottled their own wine and grew produce for sale. Later, sitting near a blazing fire in our family room, she recalled how her grandparents cooked in a pot hung inside the fireplace in the farmhouse kitchen and how they drew water from a well before indoor plumbing and a stove were installed. Like many women and veterans of war, my mother-in-law does not talk much about her past and so, between bites of turkey and the crackling fire, I relished each morsel of her tale, knowing how much of her story will be lost when she is gone.

Recently I met Priscilla Stevens, a journalist whose parents and in-laws are in their late eighties. Priscilla showed me a small bound book that she had written with her father-in-law, the story of his life in the textile industry. She is now working on a similar story with her own father. “It’s something I can do with him when I visit,” she said, noting how she tapes her interviews so she can craft a story that fully captures the vibrancy of his life and the challenges of his time. I admire her skill and how she is using the time spent with her elderly father to write his life story.

Few of us are professional writers like Priscilla, but there are other ways to record your parents’ past. Like me, you may enjoy StoryCorps, the oral history project begun in 2003 that has captivated so many of us, a project that has collected 30,000 interviews from 60,000 people across America and shares some of those stories each week on national public radio. Through StoryCorps, your parents could record their own story, receive a free CD to share, and have the interview preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Learn more here.

A similar effort with the written word is the Memoir Project, launched in 2006 by Grub Street, Boston’s creative writing center.  In partnership with the City of Boston and Grub Street’s professional writers, the Project’s aim is to teach seniors the craft of writing and to collect and preserve their stories, providing “a greater understanding of the city’s past and present for all its residents.” Watch a videoclip from one writer here.  Three anthologies of memoirs, Born Before Plastic, written by 40 seniors from the North End, South Boston and Roxbury, My Legacy is Simply This, written by 50 seniors from Charlestown, Chinatown, East Boston and Mattapan, and a soon-to-be-released Sometimes They Sang With Us, capture vividly the living history of the city through the stories of its seniors. Each book costs $12.95, all three for $35.00. You might consider purchasing one of these anthologies to spark the writing bug in your own family. Email chip@grubstreet.org to place an order. (A reminder: I do not have a financial arrangement with Grub Street or StoryCorps).

In the fall of 2010, Grub Street extended its reach. Working with the Nantucket Writers Studio, they offered an eight-week instructed course in memoir writing to year-round and summer Nantucket residents, aged 65 and older. The price of the course includes a weekly lunch or tea, course materials, and a copy of the bound anthology once it is published. I don’t summer on Nantucket but programs like this exist in other communities across the country as well. Consider sharing those you know with us.

My mother-in-law may never write her memoir or agree to be interviewed for StoryCorps, but her story will remain with us each Thanksgiving as I flip open my cookbook, prepare her turkey stuffing, and open a bottle of Barbera D’Asti wine.

Have you documented any of your parents’ story?

©Circle of Life Partners™

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