Thanksgiving on the Highway Story

It is a well known fact for anyone who knows Mom that she hates to waste food. As children we were expected to eat everything on our plates. Once when I was young, I dumped my leftover dinner in the sink. Mom had told me that I needed to finish all of it, but when she left the room I dumped it. When she returned she looked in the sink and saw my dinner there. To my horror, I watched as she promptly scooped it back out of the sink and returned it to my plate. I knew I had to sit at the table until I finished every bite. There was no getting out of eating what was now my bacteria-filled dinner.
Usually it wasn’t hard for any of us kids to finish everything on our plates. Being a family of ten kids, most of the time, there wasn’t even enough food to go around. This wasn’t because we couldn’t afford it, but because Mom hated leftovers or wasted food. 
After the blessing on the food was said each evening, it was survival of the fittest. Various platters of food were snatched from the table with record speed. If you happened to have shorter arms because you were one of the younger children (I am second to youngest) then you weren’t going to get much to eat. At this point Mom would go around the table with a metal spoon and scoop off a small portion of food from everyone’s plate. This enabled me or whoever else didn’t get any food to eat a makeshift meal. Then Mom would state satisfactorily, “I made just enough.” We’d all roll our eyes at the comment. Apparently “just enough” meant as long as everyone had a portion of food, no matter how small, it was enough. 
It became a common practice after dinner was done, for each of us to head straight to the fridge to see what else there was to eat. This was futile. The inside of my parent’s fridge consisted of the same things: A few cartons of eggs, milk, one or two oversized blocks of cheese, and condiments—that’s all. The shelves of the fridge are virtually empty. However if someone happened to want an egg over easy with a side of ketchup or A-1 sauce, they could eat at my parent’s house. If one checked our cupboards, one could find a plethora of ramen noodles and tuna fish. When we complained that we were hungry and there was nothing to eat, we almost always got the same reply, “Make yourself an egg or a tuna fish sandwich. There is plenty to eat—you just have to fix it.” It would have been easier finding a buried treasure. This phrase is still a running joke in my family. To this day when I or my siblings visit our parents’ house, we bring our own food, unless we want an egg or tuna fish sandwich, of course.
      We rarely went out to eat growing up. In fact, I don’t ever remember going to a restaurant. However with ten kids that’s understandable. When we went on family vacations we always hoped that we could stop to eat at a fast food establishment as that was a rare treat for us. Unfortunately, when it came time to eat, Mom always pulled out a recycled bread sack filled with the dreaded homemade sandwiches. The grocery store had an isle made especially for Mom. It was located next to the food storage isle and was lined with grocery carts filled with damaged food. Mom’s famous “road-trip sandwiches” were made with one piece of the thinnest, cheapest, most processed lunch meat she could buy, a huge hunk of cheddar cheese, and a slather of mustard. When that sandwich bag came out we’d all groan and beg Dad to take us to McDonald’s. Mom was “cheap,” but she referred to herself as “frugal.”
My parents and I spent Thanksgiving, November 2003 at my sister, Erin’s, house in Missouri. I had recently returned from my mission in Italy and was living at home for the time being. We had a nice traditional meal with all the trimmings and enjoyed the day together with my sister, her husband, Mitch and their six kids. The next day was to be spent traveling to Nauvoo, Illinois where we were going to spend the weekend visiting Mormon pioneer sights.
We awoke early that morning and started to pack for the five-hour trip ahead of us. I entered the kitchen for a bite to eat and instantly noticed Mom raiding Erin’s refrigerator. I knew she was looking for the leftover turkey so she could make sandwiches for the journey. This was not a good sign. Erin and I looked at each other. An unspoken understanding passed between us. Erin kindly said to Mom, “Mom, let’s just go out to eat. We can have the leftover turkey when we get home. It’s a lot of effort to pack all of this food. Let’s just stop at McDonald’s.” I shook my head at Erin knowing it was pointless. We were all doomed. It would be leftovers for the long trip to Nauvoo. Erin kept nicely trying to convince Mom that this was more effort than it was worth. But Mom moved happily through the fridge, vaguely resembling the Grinch who stole Christmas as she grabbed every last bit of the Thanksgiving feast for the journey ahead.
A little while later, everything was packed into a huge red cooler - the turkey, the salad, the rolls, the mashed potatoes and the gravy. Never mind that we would not have a microwave in the car, or the mess the meal was sure to make, or the terrible inconvenience of trying to pass out salad and other side dishes to six little kids while driving. At least we would be saving the $.99 it would cost to buy each of the kids a hamburger. Erin was right. The whole ordeal would definitely be more trouble than it was worth. We all knew the reason Mom was packing the entire turkey along with a bottle of mayonnaise and mustard (in case we wanted sandwiches) was because she was “frugal.” She wasn’t just packing sandwiches. She was packing the whole dumb bird. We were going to re-enact Thanksgiving dinner repeatedly on our journey to Nauvoo. There would be no eating out on this trip. Both Erin and I could see that.
       Erin’s husband, Mitch, spent hours loading up the top of the family suburban. Just as he finished, Mom entered the garage carrying the oversized red cooler which housed our Thanksgiving feast. I could see that he was visibly irritated at having to fit the cooler onto the already overflowing car. After some jostling and rearranging, Mitch finally had the luggage arranged perfectly. Eleven of us piled into the suburban and we took off.
We had been traveling for a few hours against a very strong head wind and were now cruising down a long narrow stretch of virtually deserted highway. Mom, who was in the seat in front of Erin and I, was in the middle of telling us a story of something that had happened to her recently. All of the sudden her eyes got huge. Mid-sentence, she started sputtering something that nobody could make out. We heard a strange kind of wail escape her lips as she pointed frantically out the back window. All of us turned around, just in time to see a giant red thing fly off the top of our car. “The cooler!” I yelled.
Just then the beast opened its belly and out popped the prized thanksgiving turkey. It flew out of the cooler and down the highway at speeds upwards of 80 miles an hour, bouncing and careening dangerously. It was followed by the mayonnaise and then the mustard which both burst on impact. Salad, mashed potatoes and gravy flew out next. There was nothing we could do. The rolls spit at passing cars like big fluffy bullets. It was like a scene of a horrible car crash and our food had not survived.
Next to go was Mom’s luggage. All we could do was watch in horror as random items continued to tumble down the highway, every which way. Mitch, who was fuming at this point over the stupid money and time the turkey was meant to save us, pulled the car off the road. He yelled at all of us to stay inside. He slammed the door behind him. No one argued. I remarked how lucky it was that no one had been behind us. All at once, we heard a muffled kind of sobbing laugh, the kind you do when you’re a kid in the principal’s office with your best friend beside you. You both try to appear sorry for whatever juvenile prank you just pulled, all the while knowing if you so much as look at your friend, you will most assuredly burst out laughing. So you both stupidly sit there, fighting like mad to stifle the laugh that sits just below the surface. It’s no use. Eventually one of you let’s loose with the horrid betraying giggle, and then neither of you can stop laughing. That’s just what happened.
I looked at Mom. Tears were rolling down her cheeks and she was shaking uncontrollably. She was trying her hardest to stifle a giggle. Finally she let loose with a full bursting chortle and couldn’t stop. Well, that did it. We all started laughing until our sides hurt. Erin quietly said, “I really did want that food, so that when we returned we’d have something to eat.” This only made Mom and the rest of us laugh harder. Mom thought it was the funniest thing in the world. I thought it was ironic.
      I decided to risk Mitch’s wrath and get out of the car to see if I could help. Before I shut the door, I warned Mom to stop laughing before Mitch got back.
      Mitch and I walked in the freezing cold, through the farmer’s field located next to the freeway trying to salvage any bits of food we could. We finally gave up and decided to eat out. It was an easy decision. When we got back in the car, Mom was still silently shaking. I could see that she was fighting to maintain control.
Mitch pulled back onto the road as we all sat silently in the car. As he started to slowly go forward, Mom regained enough self-control to ask, “Did anyone get my suitcase that flew off the car?”
On cue, we all heard a crunch. Mom stopped laughing. Mitch backed up and we heard the crunch again. Once more Mitch pulled off the road and we silently waited. He got out of the car and retrieved what was left of Mom’s bag. There in his hands lay a flattened remnant of what once was a suitcase. Clothes were bursting out the giant ripped seams. Two ugly black tire tracks were clearly visible on some of the clothes and the now ruined bag.
Mom’s face fell, “Oh noooo,” was all she said. A fit of laughter again ensued. Mitch joined in this time. I secretly wondered if he’d planned the whole thing and perhaps “forgot” to tie down Mom’s luggage and the cooler. It was a little too coincidental that only those two items fell off the car.
The discount hotel and my Mom's ruined bag.
      Needless to say we ate fast food that day and for the rest of the trip. I don’t need to mention that the hotel we stayed in was another one of Mom’s money-saving experiences. It was in the midst of renovations that were not complete and heat that did not work. A large plastic sheet hung like a ghost from the side of the decaying building, doing nothing to stop the frigid air from seeping in. We all slept in our coats huddled on top of old beds and couches and watched a TV that only got one channel. On the floor, lay the dilapidated bag, a visual reminder of Mom’s efforts to save money and the memory of a Thanksgiving turkey that was now fertilizing a farmer’s field on a highway somewhere in Illinois.

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