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Amy Choate-Nielsen: On Thanksgiving, I have gratitude for Grandma

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

Thanksgiving is about comfort food — but it's not always comfortable.

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When I think of my grandmother, I think of food.

I never actually ate any of her cooking — my father's mother, Fleeta, died before I was born — but in my mind, she was a harbinger of comfort food and warm cookies. I imagine she was warm and nurturing, that she gave hearty bear hugs, and that she smelled like sugar.

It's easy to put people you never knew on a pedestal. We never had a chance to get into a fight or butt heads. She can be hot chocolate and brownies in my mind because I never knew her to be broccoli and chicken.

It's much harder to appreciate the people who've fed you, given you hugs and, sometimes, a cause to argue.

The woman who did that for me was my other grandmother, Lenore, my mom's mom.

She was an amazing cook. I've mentioned before that she had a policy against allowing kids into the kitchen, but she made some delicious dishes. My earliest memories of Thanksgiving center around driving to her house, dressed in my Sunday best, for a feast.

I remember crashing through her pristine living room with white carpet in a hearty game of chase with my siblings while we waited for the food to be finished. When we ate, I inhaled her tomato aspic, the buttery mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, turkey, cranberries and rolls. And then, I ate as much of her pecan pie as I could stand before collapsing into a food coma on the equally white couch.

Her pecan pie was the stuff of legends — a sweet and salty combination that could win any competition. I wonder how long it took her to prepare all of that food — it must have taken hours of planning and preparation to get it all ready at just the right time, with just the right flavors. Everything was always just right.

But as hard as she worked for our comfort, I often felt restrained around my grandma. She was kind, but not particularly warm; caring, but not overly affectionate. She was generous, but sometimes a little irritable.

As time passed and we all grew older, my grandmother still hosted us for Thanksgiving, but we ate at the local country club, instead. It was still delicious, still our tradition, and one that was anchored around her.

One year, when I was in college, my grandmother offered to have my sister and I come stay with her for Thanksgiving break, for a hearty dinner with family, just like old times. But this time, I was headstrong and independent. There was dissent in the family, and I blamed her.

One night, after dinner, I exploded at her. I remember standing in the sitting room, facing her, surprised at how loud my voice was, how bold my words were, how hard I cried. It was short, but brutal. She simply stood there, silently, listening, offering an apology.

I always wondered if she ever forgave me for that outburst. And although I was ashamed at my behavior, I sometimes wondered if I had ever really forgiven her, either.

In 2006, I found my answer. Toward the end of my grandmother's life, we didn't have much contact. When she died, and I traveled back to Oklahoma for her funeral a few weeks after Thanksgiving, I didn't know how I would feel.

She was 95, a widow, and had 24-hour care. She hadn't been lucid for some time, and I thought maybe I shouldn't be sad that she died. I thought of the distance between us and I thought maybe I wouldn't miss her.

But when we arrived at the church, and the organ started to play, my tears started to flow. As my family walked down the aisle while the rest of the congregation stood in silence, I bawled like a baby. I didn't stop until her casket was in the ground.

But then, I felt peace. I felt a gratitude for her that I hadn't before realized, and overwhelming love and forgiveness. That was her gift to me — but her greatest gift is a reason to be grateful every Thanksgiving: because I knew her.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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