Still cooking Christmas lunch for departed children
My mother steadfastly insisted on cooking a massive turkey, despite our dwindling numbers, writes Philip Lynch
Bing Crosby crooning on the radio and a polish tin lid full of methylated spirits aflame on our concrete kitchen floor is one of my enduring memories of Christmas Eve. The latter was my mother’s method of singeing the turkey. One of us would help her twist and turn the bird until all its feather fragments were excised. Then she’d set to readying it for baking; cramming it with her stuffing; trussing its thighs and wings with twine and placing it into the oven for overnight roasting.
Ma wasn’t one to fuss but she flatly refused to budge on the size of the turkey. Anything less than 20lbs wouldn’t do at all. Even after over half her children headed off to begin new lives in the UK, the US and Australia, she still cooked these huge turkeys that could almost feed half the parish.
Year after year, the old man would be dispatched to the market at Ballyjamesduff. Some years he’d bring home a live turkey which would spend its final few days boarding in the hen house. It made for a strange sight towering over the startled hens – like some sort of Gulliver thrust into the land of Lilliput.
One year, I remember my brother and I struggling to straddle either ends of a broom handle to pin down the turkey’s neck as the old man laboured and yanked the unfortunate creature skywards until its massive flapping wings grew still and it hung heavy and lifeless in his hands. But mostly he’d bring back an already dead, plucked turkey which he’d hang from a rafter in the outhouse – alongside his dead ducks and pheasants – until it was time for Ma to ignite the methylated spirits.
Frugality defined Ma’s life which was hardly surprising having ten children to feed and clothe. Nothing was wasted. Leftovers took pride of place on the fridge shelves. I wouldn’t have called her a foodie. She never use the word cuisine. I don’t think she would ever have watched Jamie Oliver. But she consistently turned out soda bread that would rival any artisan baker. She had a traditional, no-frills approach to food. We grew up with dinners of mashed spuds and packet soup as well as lamb chops, boiled cabbage, mashed turnip, parsnip or carrot; all of course served up with generous helpings of spuds in their jackets.
But modest living was suddenly set aside on Christmas Day. Our massive turkey was the crucial centrepiece of Christmas lunch. Something comforting resonated from the sheer size of turkey. It almost assumed some kind of metaphorical status. We could and would dine like kings for a day. And over the ensuing week and beyond there was reheated turkey, cold turkey, and more turkey sandwiches. In more recent years she gave into my brother’s urging to add cranberry sauce to the dinner table. This brother had spent time in New York and he swore by it as a must-have condiment. But of course the rest of us demurred, preferring to stick to Ma’s familiar traditional gravy.
Chilly Christmas Eves couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm. We’d head off the mile down the country road to midnight mass, giddy with excitement, despite the frost or driving rain. Flickering lights on Christmas trees adorned most windows and porches as we walked along. Mass was no longer a chore. It was transformed by our anticipation of Christmas. Hymns were belted out in the freezing church with almost irreverent gusto. There was literally a stampede up to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion. And yes, we had our local drunk, offering his vocal encouragement, usually towards the end of the homily. Even our notoriously short-tempered curate at the time showed no signs of being bothered by these incoherent interruptions. And so it was home again and reluctantly off to bed, bubbling with excitement about what lay in store on Christmas morning.
Here in Australia, most people don’t limit their Christmas fare to fowl, three vegetables and gravy. Things are a little more sophisticated and sanitised as now doubt they are in Ireland. Seafood, especially prawns and crayfish adorn many Christmas spreads. But, three decades on, I haven’t forgotten Ma’s marathon efforts that began with lighting the methylated spirits on Christmas Eve.
She took her last ever turkey (23lbs 4ozs) out of the oven on Christmas morning 2010. With the old man’s demise, the responsibility of procuring the turkey had fallen to one of my younger brothers. None of us knew it would be her final Christmas. And, as far as I can tell, she never tried the cranberry sauce. But she was diplomatic enough to keep a jar of it in the fridge – in amongst all the other leftovers. I know this because I saw it there when I went home for her funeral.
At this time of year, I always wonder about my mother’s steadfast refusal to compromise about the turkey. Was she in denial about her dwindling number of children who were no longer around for Christmas lunch? Or did she harbour hopes of her own private Gathering on that day in December? At Christmas we like to imagine all is ideal in our world and, no doubt, my mother clung to this fantasy. Like a grieving widow who continues to set a place at the table for her departed husband, I suspect she was still cooking for us all in her heart; which of course, she was. Of course she was.
Philip Lynch lives in Tasmania and is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. He wrote last Christmas about keeping memories of his Irish Christmases alive while embracing Australian traditions, and remembering his mother, who passed away at Christmas time in 2010.