Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

In Spain for Thanksgiving, pining for Dundalk

The following piece by Washington and Lee University junior Michael McGuire was published in The Baltimore Sun on Nov. 24, 2011, and is reprinted here with permission.

By Michael McGuire

SEVILLE, Spain—Here, the orange trees are the only things changing color as autumn takes its hold. The palmeras and the jasmine vines that climb the wall outside my apartment — and fill the patio below with an inimitable scent — are alive and will flourish well into winter. The cypress trees in the gorgeous royal gardens of Alcázar, silent witnesses to endearing displays of Spanish affection, have been that same dusty green for dozens, if not hundreds, of years and won’t start changing now.

But it’s not the fall colors I miss while I’m spending this semester in Spain, even though not a thing could compare with seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains ablaze with autumn. When the sun is shining in Seville, I can still find those beautiful colors in terra cotta roofs and on the sides of buildings painted albero, the golden color of the soil that fills the bull ring downtown. Even the oranges, now half-ripened on trees all over the city, mimic the changing maple leaves that are now being raked into piles all across Maryland.

I miss something more. My mind, ever conscious that Thanksgiving is approaching, is wandering through memories of my grandmother’s table as I make my way down the sinuous cobblestone streets I walk every morning.

We flock there at least once a year, to her tiny kitchen in Dundalk, to share a meal and an afternoon. My family usually gets there first. Dad and my brother Logan retreat to the living room to find a football game on TV, and my sister finds a quiet place to send text messages until my cousins arrive. Mom offers her help to my grandmother Martha, though it’s always in vain. Additional hands are, more often than not, interference. They couldn’t possibly peel potatoes, whip cream or kneed the dough for her world-famous rolls — at least not the right way.

She’s completely focused, my grandmother, whom I’ve always called Mammies. She moves back and forth between the sink and the stove, probes her sweet potato bake in the oven and takes what’s ready to her meticulously planned buffet line. She rarely comes up for breath, and when she does, it’s usually just to apologize.

“I’m sorry,” she tells me, taking a few seconds for eye contact. “I don’t mean to be rude. I’ve just got to —” Ding! A timer sounds, and without finishing her sentence, Mammies is back to business.

My grandmother directs her apology to me since I’ve taken a seat at the table nearby, watching her maneuver her way from dish to dish and snacking on the Jordan almonds or whatever treat she incorporated into this year’s table decorations.

I’m amazed by her as she prepares a feast for 12 more easily than I make my own lunch. Although, that’s not to say it’s effortless.

The day before we celebrate — I assume this, because she couldn’t possibly have time on Thanksgiving Day — she decorates her table with tiny gourds, Indian corn, candles and bunches of colored wheat bound together with twine. She sets out silverware and glasses, and on top of each plate she rests a tiny place card to make sure we seat ourselves in an orderly fashion.

The same handwriting found on these cards is littered about her kitchen. My grandmother writes down quotes, lists and promises to herself, and she hangs them on the fridge between our old school portraits and family engagement photos. (My personal favorite: “I’ll give 110 percent if you give 109.”) She even wrote my name on the kitchen doorframe a few years ago, measuring my height in a moment of respite.

Not long after I’ve taken a seat, my aunt Kathy comes in with her own children in tow. She balances pies and cakes in her hands until my grandmother rushes over to help, and the admiration begins.

I don’t know how she does it, but every year her desserts are more beautiful, and more delicious, than the last. Layered pumpkin cake with homemade cream cheese frosting and chocolate ganache, lemon meringue pie 4 inches thick, apple pie covered with little pastry oak leaves, egg washed and sprinkled with coarse grains of sugar: I remember them all. She’s too modest, for sure, always answering our compliments by explaining how whatever she did was “nothing, really.”

The sound of the electric carving knife means dinner is moments away. Once the buffet is set — salads, gravies and sauces in their proper places — Mammies stops to say a blessing, and then we move the food to our plates. My cousin Erin starts to tease about our predetermined lineup for the buffet, and Dad reminds us all of the year my grandmother, his mother, forgot the sweet tea.

Once we’re all seated, the stories drift further back into time as we collectively recall odd Thanksgiving guests, stories of my great-grandfather and the year we had Thanksgiving dinner at a small church in Wye Mills. (My parents had just been in a car accident, so the rest of my family brought the Thanksgiving feast as close to them as possible.)

Our Thanksgiving table becomes the birthplace of inside jokes. Only here would the phrase “Slice it, wrap it and freeze it” cause an outburst of laughter. Certain jokes are even more intimate; my brother nudges my leg underneath the table every time we want to laugh and can’t.

I’ve heard every one of these stories before, and that’s my favorite part. We’re not here to inform, to recount our days like we would at any other meal. We’re instead here to entertain each other. Every old yarn about my crazy uncle Mike is treasured because these stories, this holiday — they are the constancy we lack 364 days a year. They’re familiar, and they change only if Dad decides to exaggerate a little more this year. We’re thankful for these stories and the storytellers themselves, more than anything.

Because of this, the food has always been secondary to me. What matters most is the sound of my father’s laughter, the pleasure that registers on my aunt’s face when people ask to try “a little bit of everything” for dessert, and the way my grandmother watches over all of us from her own little table in the next room. She has invited too many people once again this year. And after a marathon day of slicing, basting, mashing and baking, she’s happy to sit just outside of all the action, to watch her family be just that.

Especially this time of year, this beautiful Spanish city by a river cannot compare to my Maryland hometown by the bay. The centuries-old Universidad de Sevilla, whose massive lecture halls and sunlit courtyards are steeped in history, is no substitute for my tiny Lexington, Va., university, right now surrounded by mountains of red and gold. My señora (host mother) cooks like a dream, but she knows nothing about sweet potato bake, homemade applesauce or my mom’s Chesapeake chowder.

The table in the dining room here, passed down to my señora by her own grandmother, won’t be crowded today. It holds different stories than the ones I’m used to, all of them told with an Andalusian accent and punctuated by the laughter of a different language. It celebrates its own holidays.

So instead, I’ll gather with a few other American students at an Irish bar named Flaherty’s. I’m not sure whose idea that was, but I suppose it’s better than eating at one of the American restaurants in Seville: McDonald’s, KFC or TGI Fridays.

I haven’t a clue about the menu, but I doubt it will be very traditional. It’s a real challenge to find autumn staples in this city. Spanish stores sell iPods, Orbit gum and Heinz ketchup, but the seasonal joy of warm apple cider is lost on the sevillanos. My señora prepares flan, natilla and arroz con leche — not apple pie — when something she’s making calls for dessert.

Apples are out of season here, anyway, for now the orange is coming into its own.

But we’ll celebrate, nonetheless, because Thanksgiving is a holiday that cannot be skipped. As we sit there, Americans carrying on our conversations in stilted Spanish, some of my friends will be thinking about football games and turkey. Someone will bring up Black Friday shopping, I’m sure.

And my mind will be elsewhere, drifting through honey-colored oak leaves, imagining the whir of an electric carving knife, the taste of a long-anticipated forkful of pecan pie and the sound of the stories being passed around at my grandmother’s table.

Michael McGuire studies Spanish, journalism and creative writing at Washington and Lee University and is this year’s recipient of the Landon B. Lane Memorial Scholarship in Journalism. His work has appeared in several newspapers. His email is mcguirem13@mail.wlu.edu.