Dressing, not stuffing. That’s a distinction she clings to even after all these years up north. Her worn hands crumble cornbread and white bread together over a mixing bowl, skin papery, veins dark. Martha has been fascinated lately with her veins. Dark, protruding, obvious—they seem so very exposed. She pokes one, and watches it roll around on her wrist like a pitiful snake. Dave had loved her dressing.
Half a roast chicken, left over, will make the stock. She pulls meat from bone and peels off the once-crisp skin, now flaccid and rubbery. That step isn’t strictly necessary, but she likes the deconstruction. Maybe in another life, she thinks, she might have been a surgeon. The meat weighs nicely in her hands. There are veins here, too, small and purplish, not fully cooked away, in the cold white flesh of the chicken. Just enough to remind you that it used to be alive. Into the pot, meat, bones, and skin, boiling with salt and thyme and onion and carrots to make the rich, savory broth. Soon she will pour it over the dry husks of bread to make a batter, and the batter will be poured into a hot oiled skillet to bake.
She does this. Suddenly, there is no more to do. The dressing is browning, the sweet potatoes are cooked, the cranberries are freshly minced, the pie is made. No turkey this year, Anushka is taking care of that. Or says she is.
Steam clings to the windows of the cramped townhouse that has nevertheless grown far too large. After decades of life here, it suddenly feels like someone else’s home. Someone with the same taste in magazines and coffee filters, maybe, but still a person fundamentally different from herself. A person used to living alone.
James has been nagging her to go out more. “Mom, it’s not good for you to be cooped up by yourself all the time,” he’d said on their phone call last week, sounding exasperated. His words had a frantic, harried undercurrent that she recognized as his lawyer voice. “People, especially older people, need a social outlet. It’s a question of public health. They’ve done studies, and isolation is actively, physiologically harmful.” Then he lost that clipped, factual tone she could never quite associate with her own son, and sighed. “I just don’t want you to be lonely, Ma.”
“I have an outlet. I go to church,” Martha had retorted. “I read the New York Times too, you know. Regular churchgoers are happier. They’ve done studies on that, too.” She regretted it almost immediately. She’d never quite gotten over James declaring himself an atheist, but she didn’t want to argue with him—she valued these weekly phone calls too much.
But James didn’t argue. He just sighed and said that talking to God was great and all, but talking to other people wasn’t a bad move either. “Maybe join a book club, or a yoga group. Anushka swears by her yoga group. They have them for over-fifties now. Just something, Mom, please. With Dad gone…” he trailed off. “I know it’s been hard for you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Martha said.
Martha packs up the food in aluminum foil and tupperwares and loads it into her car. Thanksgiving, for the first time, will be at James’ and Anushka’s apartment in the city. Not in her house, the house James grew up in. Anushka had insisted.
“We’re just now getting the hang of adulting, Martha. We’d love to host Thanksgiving and make it official. Besides, we don’t want to impose on you—just bring a side or a dessert and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Martha had graciously accepted the invitation, but categorically refused to limit herself to bringing a single dish. She was a gifted cook and for decades had channeled any inclination towards creativity or self-expression through food. What she thought, consciously, was, Anushka has a PhD. What can she possibly know about cooking? What she really meant, though, was Anushka has a PhD. What does she need to cook for?
But that word, adulting, a noun turned into a verb like it was something so alien and amusing. Anushka was thirty. (James was almost forty, but Martha ignored this). Martha herself had gotten married at twenty-three and had James when she was twenty-eight. Adulthood was something that had happened to her. It had happened to everyone she knew growing up in respectable rural poverty, and was not something you got to delay until you decided it sounded like fun. Or it shouldn’t get to be, just because you went to graduate school.
All of this spins through Martha’s head as she turns onto the highway towards George Washington Bridge. She loves this drive, in spite of herself. She has grown to truly appreciate the bleak, ugly industrialism of New Jersey as it bleeds into New York. When Dave first told her they were moving up north to chase construction jobs, she’d been horrified. She was used to rural Georgia, to red dirt and cow pastures and the only buildings that pricked into the horizon being grain silos. The North, she thought, was dirty, smelly, and cold, containing nothing but belching factories and featureless tenements. Dave had chuckled and said that as long as they were hiring guys like him to build those featureless tenements, they would be all right.
And it was, kind of. And they were. And as Martha drives, she can’t help but notice how the city seems to grow out of the marshes that surround it like a rare and complicated jewel. The highway itself is truly a highway, arcing over the wetlands in a brutal, elegant curve, a road that really appears to be going somewhere. Dave had loved it. He’d loved anything that seemed sturdy and man-made. A well-built house, a road with no potholes. Monuments. Tidy gardens. Public transportation that runs on time. The food she made for him.
As she turns into the city proper, the streets clogged and teeming with life, she thinks again of veins. New York is full of them. Each street, each subway line, is its own little life, interlocking and fallible.
She pulls into the garage two streets away from James and Anushka’s apartment in Tribeca. She stacks the dishes on top of each other, and with some difficulty, sets out to see her son and daughter-in-law.
“Oh, Martha, you shouldn’t have,” says Anushka, and means it. She isn’t annoyed, per se, that Martha has brought a half-dozen dishes instead of one; she knows her mother-in-law is lonely, and newly retired, and prides herself on her cooking. But, well, the apartment is only so big, and the dining table is really a breakfast table, and it’s just the three of them anyway. And besides, couldn’t she, Anushka, a grown woman, be trusted to put together an edible meal on her own? But she brushes all of that aside. She thanks Martha, takes the edifice of food off her hands, and sets it in the tiny kitchen as James hugs his mother.
When she comes back, Martha is admiring the apartment. It’s new, their wedding present to each other after years spent in a featureless loft in Queens, and both Anushka and James are quite proud of it. Tiny, of course, but in a historic building in a great neighborhood, full of books and non-IKEA furniture and vintage miscellanies they found at flea markets. It was, as James proudly declared when they were finished, an apartment you could show off to people. Anushka knew exactly what he meant: it was expensive, but not garishly so, and quirky and modern and above all, tasteful. It was an apartment where you could boast about the side table you took off the curb, and everyone would ooh and ahh and secretly be a little jealous, and, as James remarked, no one could possibly think you had grabbed that table because you couldn’t afford to buy one new.
Little moments like that always uncomfortably reminded Anushka that James had grown up poor, or at least what she thought of as poor. His dad had been a construction worker, frequently out of work, and Martha had been a part-time dental hygienist. His childhood home was a crumbly Stucco townhouse in a working-class suburb, decorated with beige carpeting and Thomas Kinkade prints.
Her first visit to that house had also been the first time she met his parents. They’d been dating for about six months, after a chance encounter at a mutual friend’s gallery opening. Anushka had just moved to Philadelphia for a research fellowship while James was living, at the time, in Brooklyn, so they decided to meet in the middle. James, who up until then had seemed almost too shiny, too trendy, too self-assured, dutifully cleaned the soles of his Ferragamo loafers on the faded welcome mat. He was entirely comfortable in that townhouse, she’d realized.
Dave and Martha were kind. They welcomed her into their home and didn’t ask her any weird questions about being Indian, and gradually Anushka got over the faint, guilty embarrassment she always felt when speaking to people who hadn’t gone to college. Dave in particular had a quality Anushka couldn’t define in the moment but later, while combing out her hair and watching James brush his teeth, would call openness of spirit. “He just seems so interested in everything,” she said, “even things…” She trailed off. “Even things he obviously doesn’t understand,” James finished, and in his voice it didn’t sound patronizing. It sounded awful, full of awe at the wonder of his father who needed so little to accept, on faith, the general goodness of the world, and Anushka for the first time understood how fiercely James loved him. They finished up the visit with excellent pound cake and the Atlanta Braves on television. It was an alien world, but it was one she could visit.
Of course, Anushka’s parents’ house had probably seemed just as alien to James. She had grown up in a boxy McMansion in the wealthy part of Edison, coated in plastic siding and perched on a half-acre of brittle grass. Her parents had hired an interior decorator when they first moved in, and when asked to describe their ideal aesthetic, said “regular.” They were model, assimilationist, high-skilled high-caste immigrants from India, and just wanted something that screamed We belong here. And because their neighborhood was almost entirely made up of other model, assimilationist, high-skilled high-caste immigrants from India, it worked perfectly. Whenever Anushka visited them now, she was uneasily reminded of a waiting room in the office of a therapist who didn’t take insurance: expensive, comfortable, and deeply impersonal.
“—and Anushka’s just started at Hunter, too, which is really exciting,” James is saying. He turns to her. “Honey, what’s that class you’re teaching called again? Mom would love to hear about it.”
“Oh, it’s just one section of the Introduction to Cinema class,” Anushka replies.
“I think it’s great you get to teach a whole class about movies,” Martha says. “It’s amazing, what people are studying these days.”
Anushka bites her lip, and then smiles and agrees. She shouldn’t be bothered by Martha’s slight, bemused condescension—after all, it reminds her of her own parents, doesn’t it? These people who crossed oceans for an opportunity, staring blankly as she tried to explain what exactly one did with a PhD in film studies. “Yeah, I really am lucky,” she says with a bark of laughter, and decides not to mention that it’s an adjunct position that barely pays enough to make a dent in their expenses. “Martha, how about we finish up dinner?” she adds.
“What about me?” James asks.
“What about you?” Martha says.
“The kitchen can’t fit all three of us,” Anushka says firmly.
Ginger, garlic, and garam masala. Anushka doesn’t cook much, but she does love the smell of aromatics simmering in oil. The turkey is in a yogurt marinade, and soon it’ll be ready to cook. Martha busies herself heating up her covered dishes, but stops to examine the plastic bag full of yogurt sauce and neat slices of tenderizing meat.
“What’s this?” she asks.
Anushka is ready. “That’s the turkey,” she says quickly. “I figured, with just three of us, and such a small kitchen, we should just do cutlets instead of a whole bird.”
She waits for Martha to sniff disapprovingly, or maybe outright accuse her of negligence or sabotaging the holiday experience. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Martha nods, and asks what spices she’s using.
Anushka has never really understood the whole Thanksgiving thing. Growing up, it meant Thai takeout and football and faintly surreal history classes about “Indians.” Anushka identifies heavily with America, but she’s never been able to identify with American history. The pilgrims survived the winter? So what? What could that possibly have to do with her, when her ancestors were on the other side of the world and, as far as she knew, not committing genocide? But James loves it, and she knows the food is a big reason why. Martha’s sweet potato casserole and cranberries and dressing mean something to him that she respects, even if she can’t quite understand it. She was, truthfully, anxious to try something different, especially for the first Thanksgiving without Dave. So much is different already.
But Martha seems to like the cutlet idea.
Martha says grace, for the first time. Dave always did it when he was alive. But she can hardly ask Anushka, and she can’t ask James either, and so it falls to her. She thanks God for food and family and the blessing of each coming day. She looks at her son, his head bowed but his eyes open and glassy, and for a second is pained at how they are finished with believing in the same thing. He loves her, she knows that, and yet he is so distant from her. He doesn’t believe that he will ever see his father again.
They dig in. The food is exactly how it has always been, except for the turkey, which is delicious anyway. She tells Anushka so, and she seems genuinely pleased at the compliment. Martha mourns how things were, just a little bit, but she can’t complain. It’s a good start at a new tradition, she can admit that.
Snow is just beginning to fall as they finish up their pie and coffee. Martha is a little sleepy, a little tired, but fully content. She should be ready. She should say something now. But she looks at her family, and James and Anushka are happy, or happy enough, and she can’t. So they do the dishes together, quietly and companionably. She purposefully leaves behind her pie pan, the good one made of blue and white china, with the excuse that she doesn’t want it to break in the car. Anushka seems puzzled at that, but doesn’t push it. She kisses them goodnight, and thanks them for dinner.
Snow swirls around Martha’s car as she drives along the interstate. Against the hazy orange-purple of the polluted sky, it looks almost magical. The lights and smoke and metal tubing of Newark are softened into something ethereal, as if she could drive off the highway into a fairy kingdom instead of an aging industrial city.
Snap out of it, she tells herself. You’re not dead yet. It’s a little early for fairy kingdoms. She rubs the prominent vein on her left wrist and feels its ropy movement.
She’ll have to tell them soon, she knows that. Hopefully she can put it off until it’s been at least a full year since Dave died. She doesn’t want James to remember the year he got married as the year he lost both his parents. Martha prays a little to God and a little to the cancer in her blood vessels. Just a couple more months before things get really bad, how about that? Does that sound fair? Have I earned that much?
The city, the wetlands, the city, the sprawl. Soon the lights of Newark will give way to roadside diners and empty space. In Manhattan, James and Anushka are contentedly falling asleep. Tomorrow, maybe, they’ll argue; tomorrow, maybe, will be as imperfect as any other day spent loving someone imperfectly.
Martha drives. Somewhere behind her, the Hudson rolls sluggishly onward in its reluctant march to the sea. Somewhere to the south is the red-dirt town she grew up in, clapboard houses filled now with leftovers and contented sleep, and to the west is the expanse of America. Snow falls softly all around her as she drives home. It falls into the rivers and the marshes and the sea, the water becoming itself once more, unending and vast.