Cranberry Parting Glass
on changing traditions, atrophied nostalgia, and loss
I’m not a nostalgic person. But sometimes in late November, my atrophied nostalgia is resurrected just for a bit at the grocery store. I pause in front of a giant display of stacked cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and I’m transported to a long-ago scene. A decorated table. Pilgrim salt and pepper shakers. Red solo cups with neatly written names. Little glass dishes bearing the shiny, shivering, congealed cranberry logs reflecting fluorescent light and bulbous faces.
I see my granny and pappaw and pappaw’s turkey hat he used to wear unironically. I see my cousin’s other grandparents sitting with my grandparents—a relationship that goes back further than half of us have been alive. Brandi Carlisle sings of wanting “a house with a crowded table,” and in those days we all crowded around several folding plastic tables (the kind you’d see displayed in church fellowship halls). We filled our extra large Chinet paper plates with all the casseroles and sides you’d expect at a southern gathering (that wasn’t quite culturally southern, but geographically so).
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When you’re a kid sampling jellied cranberry concoctions and eating more baked mac and cheese than green beans, you don’t think about the future. About empty chairs or fading memories. You don’t think about grown up moves that’ll take you 2,000 miles across the country or changing palettes or changing beliefs.
I’m ok with changing traditions, with Thanksgivings that look different year after year, with travel on actual holidays to save dollars where we can. But my buried nostalgia feels tender when I think about four missing bodies that won’t be at any tables anywhere. I’d eat a whole log of congealed cranberry sauce to hear granny’s laugh again, to see pappaw in his ridiculous hat, to watch the four old friends chatting as they had for decades. Perhaps death is felt most acutely when the table count dwindles from four, to three, to two, to one.
I wander through the grocery store aisles looking for dog food, hit with memories. So much good mixed with so much bad. Such is life. Such is nostalgia. Such is trauma. We are a generation twice removed from our grandparents. We put words to our wounds. We learn about boundaries. We question passed down beliefs not out of rebellion, but out of a deep rooted need to find our own way. We honor the wisdom they held and offered. We miss their presence. We remember them. We love them. We hope we’re making them proud.
I can’t help it—I buy a can of the stuff that hasn’t changed in 50 years. Perhaps this cranberry sauce is my own version of a parting glass—a custom that dates way, way back as the final hospitable gesture offered to a departing guest—a blessing to rise up, to be at peace, to know joy. I open the can, let the cranberry mass slither out onto a plate. I take a bite. It’s terrible. It’s memorable. It’s the flavors of my childhood. Flavors of gratitude and love and longing.
Coming Up in December: A Four-Part Advent Series
Beginning on the first Sunday of Advent, this collaborative series includes four essays centered around wonder, written by four different writers. These essays are free for all subscribers, so please be sure to subscribe and check out Rachel, Liz, and Sara if you haven’t already!
12/3: Hope by(The Black Letter)
12/10: Peace by(The Empathy List)
12/17: Love by(Bitter Scroll)
12/24: Joy by(Wild + Waste)