My grandmother’s coffee table was a polished walnut, smooth to the touch. It was an antique even then, 50 years ago. And on it sat the inevitable coffee table book. Hers was a collection of Norman Rockwell paintings. From time to time, I would enter that quiet room with its plastic-covered sofa and tattered rug, and I would look at every page. The binding creaked when I opened it, and the pages slid across each other like sheets of satin. My favorite picture was the timeless Thanksgiving piece titled “Freedom From Want.”

To my little girl eyes, it was perfect. I certainly understood nothing of technique or theme or even the meaning of the title itself. All I knew was that everyone in it looked so happy, and the food looked delicious. It made me smile.

Art imitates life, I’ve been told. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, is there ever truly a last Thursday in November that looks just like that idyllic work of art? 

My grandmother certainly worked to make Thanksgiving dinner, as she did for every other meal, a feast. To this day, when I hear someone use the phrase “working their fingers to the bone,” it’s my grandmother Gussie I think of. Her hands were not beautiful. Her fingers were crippled with arthritis even that long ago, and they were never still. Always working, cooking, scrubbing, folding, they seemed to never rest. There was nothing better when one of us grandchildren were sick than Gussie’s cool, firm fingers on your forehead. She could gauge a temperature to within a tenth of a degree with startling accuracy. Those same fingers could snap a chicken’s neck and fry it up for dinner just as effortlessly as they sewed on a button or spread butter on a piping hot biscuit.

Somehow, without the aid of an air fryer or an electric skillet or even a microwave, Gussie Coxwell could manage to get 12 different dishes piled high with vegetables and meats and even dessert all steaming hot and on the table at the exact same moment. It was a miracle, that’s for sure. And it happened daily. I was too young to appreciate it, of course. I turned my nose up at the fresh corn and collards, avoided the turkey and dressing and quietly nibbled on a single biscuit with butter. I’d love to go back in time and shake myself a bit. What on earth was I thinking?

There have been many Thanksgivings since those young days with my grandparents. My own mother cooked turkey upon turkey, all perfectly moist and golden brown. She, too, had the knack for perfect timing. The table was always full of hot food, and she was (like her own mother) constantly moving, never resting and never once eating an entirely hot meal with the rest of us. That was her love language, I believe. Feeding us all and watching us enjoy the fruits of her hard work.

As memory often works, it’s not the perfect, flawless Thanksgivings I remember. It’s the ones that detoured slightly from the Norman Rockwell version of turkey day. For instance, Thanksgiving of 1980 is known in our family as “the year of the crunchy peas.” My sister, who was 14 years older than I, married that year. She was so excited to have us gather in her home for Thanksgiving. The table was beautifully set. The dishes and glasses gleamed. The turkey sat on a platter in the middle, waiting to be sliced. Several dishes of vegetables surrounded it like chorus girls circling the main act.

My father blessed the food, and my sister began to pass the many dishes. Silence fell as we all dug in. It was my dad, I believe, who made the first comment. “These peas are crunchy. Are they supposed to be crunchy?” Horrified, my sister took a bite and shook her head in dismay. “They’re still frozen,” she whispered. “They’re delicious,” my sweet mother was quick to say. “I like a little crunch,” I added.

And then my sister’s husband began to carve the turkey. He paused, reached his hand into the cavern of the turkey’s backside, and pulled out a well-baked, soggy bag. “What on earth is that??” my sister croaked. “Those are the giblets,” my dad said. “You forgot to take out the giblets?” my mother asked. I think she tried to suck the words back down her throat, but it was too late. My sister’s shoulders sagged, and she covered her face with her hands. No one moved or even breathed. And then my sister lifted her face so we could see that she was laughing. Laughing so hard, in fact, that tears began to roll down her face. Within moments, we were all howling and dabbing our eyes.

“I guess I’m no Julia Child,” my sister said when she could finally breathe again. “Best Thanksgiving ever,” my mother responded. And we all agreed.

Years later, when my sister was living far away and I had children of my own, we had what is known as the “Thanksgiving of the dead turkey.” My son, Thomas, who was 4 at the time, had been hearing me speak of our turkey dinner for days. “The turkey will be beautiful,” I said. “It’s a big one this year,” I had also remarked. Thomas’s eyes lit up every time we mentioned the turkey.

The big day finally came. As he played, I cooked and prepared and worked. Dinner time rolled around. My parents were there. The table was set. Everything was ready. Thomas walked to the table and climbed up in his booster seat. Directly in front of him sat a 15-pound beauty, all brown skin and thick gravy. Thomas’s eyes grew round and wide. In his high-pitched, little boy voice, he wailed, “The turkey is dead!” And he began to cry. Huge tears spilled over his cheeks. The rest of us stifled laughter as best we could. After much explaining and consoling, dinner proceeded. To this day, Thomas is not a fan of turkey.

A few years later, when my daughter Abbey was 5, she and I were in Walmart buying another dead turkey and all the trimmings. That morning, Santa happened to be posing for pictures with children in the parking lot of Walmart. The line snaked around the building. With promises to come back later, I managed to make my way into the store. We stood in front of the freezer full of turkeys, Abbey and I, debating which one to take home. (I had fully explained that the turkey would be dead so as to avoid any trauma at the dinner table.) As fate would have it, Santa was on his break at the same moment. He emerged from a hallway open only to employees just as Abbey looked up. There he stood, his fake belly removed and his red velvet pants sagging a bit. His beard was gone, and he held a Coke in one hand and a Moon Pie in the other. I held my breath, wondering what Abbey’s reaction would be. She tilted her head, and she and Santa stared at each other a moment. And then, in her sweet voice, she said, “Santa is too skinny. He’ll fall straight down the chimney.”

Santa chuckled and said, “If I eat enough of these Moon Pies, I’ll fatten right up!” And with a wave, he was off — back to the line of screaming children baking in the November sun.

“I know Santa’s just pretend,” Abbey said. “But he’s funny.”

Oh, if only I could go back to that day in Walmart. I’d stand right there for hours and just take in the wonder that was my daughter. Or if I could sit at our old table and dry Thomas’s tears again, I’d relish every second of it.

And to return, just for one more Thanksgiving, to a meal my sister cooked, I would take the chair next to her and tell her how much I love her.

Or, if wishes were something we could hold in our hand, I would be sitting in my grandmother’s den, turning the pages of Norman Rockwell’s coffee table collection, listening to the sounds of dinner being prepared, knowing my grandmother’s hands are busy as always.

If only…