I would like to begin this post by telling you about something that happened many, many years ago in a land far, far away.
Actually it was the 1970s, and Butterball had just introduced an exciting new innovation in the preparation of turkeys. Their birds now came equipped with a pop-up plastic device that would make roasting foolproof. When your turkey was cooked to perfection, you would see the telltale yellow plastic disk separated from the base and sticking out as if to scream, “Take your turkey out now, dumbass!”
The pop-up timer was quite a hit and is still in use today. Few people were more excited about it than my father-in-law Otto’s cousin Julia. She had turned down a few Thanksgiving invites, including one from Otto and his wife Dolly –my future in-laws — to stay home with her mother Marie and prepare the perfect bird for the two of them using this innovation.
On Thanksgiving morning Julia awoke early to prep the bird. The two ladies made the obligatory phone calls to their relatives in Germany, and then settled in to watch the Thanksgiving Parade and anticipate their feast. After more than a few hours had passed, Marie became concerned.
“Chulia, shouldn’t the turkey be ready by now?” she asked.
“Now Mutti,” Julia chided her, “You know we have to wait for the popper to pop.”
Being 100% German, Julia had a blind trust in newfangled engineering. She was also as stubborn as an ox. Marie, or Mutti as Julia called her, was a bit older and wiser. She had seen a lot in her time, and did not share Julia’s trust in the pop-up timer.
Nevertheless, in this situation Julia prevailed. Marie, who related this story to me at one of Dolly and Otto’s Thanksgiving feasts years later, swore that she asked Julia the same question every half hour for the next two hours. And every time, Julia’s answer was the same. “Now Mutti, you know we have to wait for the popper to pop.”
Finally Julia checked the oven and saw that the popper had indeed popped. She scooped up the turkey pan from the oven and set it down on the table with a triumphant flourish. With that, according to Marie, the legs of the turkey literally flew off and the chest heaved a sigh that brought up belches of black smoke. “The turkey literally exploded,” Marie said, her head shaking and her cornflower blue eyes widening at the memory. Well, at least they had their vegetables.
On that Thanksgiving Day Julia vowed to never again cook another turkey, and I am sure that made Mutti really happy. The following year they wisely accepted the Thanksgiving invite from cousins Dolly and Otto in nearby Fairview. That is how I ended up spending many happy Thanksgivings in the company of these marvelous ladies.
Aunt Marie and Cousin Julia were both very gracious and fun to be around, with their sparkling blue eyes and ready laughs. Julia especially was game for anything. Whether it was a trip around the world or dinner with the family at our usual haunt, she was ready and willing to not only join in but make sure that everything went as it should. “This was one for the Memory Book,” she would say happily, even after the most exhausting of family occasions when the rest of us had bleary eyes and aching feet. She was what you would call a “trouper” and spent many an afternoon or evening elbow-to-elbow with my sister-in-law Robin and me, busily washing the dishes after dinner at my in-laws. Not only was Julia game for anything, she rarely if ever complained – even when Aunt Marie’s health began to decline and caring for her took up much more of her time.
Julia was a longtime employee of Hudson County Bank and worked at the Jersey City branch for many years. When I met her she was a bank Vice President, and I admired her career and money savvy. Even when she retired years later, she continued to listen to me lament over work issues and other life challenges that were stressing me out. She always offered me sound advice, and never judged me for what I perceived to be my lack of ambition or direction. And when my in-laws passed much too soon, “Aunt” Julia stepped into the role of “surrogate Grandmother” to all of their grandchildren without fanfare. She simply did what she felt she needed and wanted to do. She spoiled all of us rotten with dinners out and generous gifts. I still recall a Christmas when Robin and I opened our beautifully wrapped gift boxes to find matching and stunningly beautiful crystal globes. My husband John and his brother Jim opened boxes filled with cut crystal wine glasses that were equally exquisite. We were all delighted and pretty much speechless. Julia knew that our Christmases at that point were all about our kids, present-wise – and she wanted to give something special to her “nephews” and their wives. She succeeded brilliantly.
Another present from Julia to me came as the result of a disaster the first time I took the onus off of my mother-in-law and hosted Thanksgiving at our home in 1988. In this case, the Butterball became not a Butterbomb but a fireball. The story is now famous among our friends and family, and frankly I can’t bear to relive it detail by detail even one more time. Yes, it’s still that painful. Let’s just say it involved grease spilling from a spigot formed by a flimsy foil turkey pan being lifted out of the oven. The grease hit the oven’s flame, and my husband came very close to losing his eyebrows. (But not close enough, as far as I was concerned. You catch my drift?). We lost the use of our oven. Slippery grease was spilled all over the floor. The smoke detector, actually both of them, went off. The turkey and my marriage were somehow salvaged, mostly thanks to the good cheer and high spirits of our guests (especially my mother-in-law Dolly, who was so grateful to not be hosting yet again that I think the poor woman would have eaten a broken glass sandwich on moldy bread and been happy as a clam).
So Julia had been witness to yet another turkey gone “fowl.” (Sorry I couldn’t resist). But like I said, she was a trouper. And a smart lady, since she soon gifted me with her own beautiful and very sturdy turkey roasting pan. “I’ll never use it again,” she said. And when I finally got brave enough to face my demons and cook another turkey – after having Thanksgiving catered three years in row due to fireball-induced PTSD – I was very grateful to have that pan. Because it was more than a roasting pan. It represented Julia’s confidence in me and, in fact, in all of us Kampfes. Julia was the quintessential family Matriarch, and believed in unlimited possibilities for all of us.
Julia is sadly gone, but the memory of her giving spirit and sense of adventure continue to inspire us. I still host Thanksgiving for the extended family at my house. And when we raise our fancy crystal wine glasses in a toast and successfully lift “big tom” out of the sturdy roasting pan, we sorely miss all of the wonderful people who once shared the table with us. But as they do during each successful holiday or Kampfe family gathering, my thoughts turn especially toward the spirited woman who made all of us feel like we were the most important people in the world.
“This was one for the Memory Book.”