Mom’s cranberry sauce was a thing of beauty, concocted of fresh berries, sugar, spices and orange zest; slow-simmered on a back burner while she attended to the rest of the feast, and brought to the table in a pressed-glass bowl handed down from her x-great-grandmother. Made with love and pride, it was to me emblematic of her skill as a cook and, writ larger, of a kind of happiness and warmth which, in youthful innocence, I thought unique to my family’s holiday celebrations. Cranberry sauce from a can was for people who just didn’t care enough.
My first Thanksgiving away from home was in 1975; I was twenty years old and living in a foreign country. That Thursday I was invited to share the meal with a small group of other young Americans, none of whom I knew (I had only been in that country for three weeks), all as poor as I, all drawn together as strangers in a strange land.
I was shy, and homesick, and as we waited for dinner to be ready, while conversations drifted around me, I sat on a tattered sofa, twisted around to face the window. Someone in the room behind me put music on the stereo, a classical piece of gentle and poignant beauty that felt like a bittersweet elegy for the death of childhood, and I lost myself in watching snow fall from pewter skies, wallowing in melancholic self-pity.
A holler from the kitchen that dinner was ready snapped me back into the moment, and I rose with everyone else to move to the table.
It wasn’t the kind of setting I was used to, comfortable, complacent, cocooned as I had been growing up — no lace tablecloth, no sparkling crystal or china or mellowed silver; no Norman Rockwell extended family who had known and loved me all my life — but as we approached the table something glorious happened: a stray sunbeam broke through the window and landed smack in the middle of the table on a cylinder of cranberry sauce, making it glow like a cabochon ruby. Laugh if you will, but at that moment I felt as if the heavens, literally opening, pronounced a benison on the occasion.
And as we all sat down to eat amidst laughter and mutual good wishes, my heart rejoiced.
During that Thanksgiving dinner I would get to know the kids who smiled at me around that table; a couple of them would soon become treasured friends with whom I would share, as in all friendships, experiences sweet with affection, tart with humor, and bitter with unhappy regrets. And so it makes sense to me that my most vivid memory of that day nearly forty years ago would be of the canned cranberry sauce quivering with unlooked-for loveliness in unexpected sunshine.