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Punctuality Was Always On Mom's Menu

Punctuality Was Always On Mom's Menu

When you’re a mediocre cook, you have to find ways to distinguish yourself at holiday meals.

My mother, who perked up nearly all of her overcooked dishes with Lipton Onion Soup Mix, was respected widely for her punctuality.

And her eclectic collection of guests.

My parents regarded a holiday shared exclusively with family members as a sad sign of social isolation. To avoid that, they always were on the lookout for folks with no place to go. If an acquaintance mentioned that family lived far away, my mother would beam. Spend Thanksgiving with us, she'd suggest.

No car? No problem. We'll pick you up. Be ready.

Holiday invitations were issued early, before anyone else could get to these hapless prospective guests. That is how a rotating cast of oddballs came to arrive every Thanksgiving. Any awkwardness at finding themselves in our misfit midst evaporated in the quick-step timing of our holiday gatherings.

A bachelor college professor was a fixture at our Thanksgiving and Christmas tables for more than 20 years. So was a widowed steelworker. They sat beside a single nurse, who'd served in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. I recall several holidays with uniformed soldiers from Fort Dix at the old oak table. And at least one with an Indian family who'd bought a house from my father's little real estate business and was unfamiliar with American traditions. Prime targets.

One November, a pal came home from college with me because her parents were involved in an ugly divorce. She fretted my family might mind the intrusion.

You have no idea, I sighed.

In all the years I sat at my mother's table, I never remember anyone ever asking her for a recipe. The food was passable. The company was priceless.

And punctuality was always on Mom's menu. Come hungry. And come on time. If Thanksgiving dinner was at 4, she wanted everyone in their seats at 1600 hours and the serving bowls in motion.

No cocktail hour. (My mother was a teetotaler.) No hors d'oeuvres. (They ruin your appetite.)

Guests arrived, were propelled to their seats and the meal was under way.

Nothing dampened my mother's happy holiday mood quite like laid-back visitors who wanted to linger in her kitchen and sip a glass of my father's Mateus. Or football fans, glued to the TV, who begged to watch one more play.

 Norma Dougherty in 1990. Queen of the casseroles.

Norma Dougherty in 1990. Queen of the casseroles.

"The food is getting cold," my mother would trill from the dining room, where she would be seated alone – queen of the casseroles – waiting for the rest of us. "I said dinner at 4!"

Once we took our seats, my father would say grace. Even that was expected to be brief and to the point. If Dad got carried away and began to thank the Almighty for miscellaneous blessings such as robust health, flea-free dogs and the Red Sox, my mother would heave a dramatic sigh, an audible signal to wrap it up.

Food flew around our table, and the meal was over in minutes.

Dessert was served immediately: pumpkin pie with a squirt of Reddi-wip.

Ah, Thanksgiving memories. Sometimes it's about the food. Sometimes it's about the company. Sometimes it's about the pace.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Don't be late.

A version of this column ran in The Virginian-Pilot on Nov 22, 2007

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