It was the first holiday that we would all be together since Mom died, and it was at my house.
The last Thanksgiving we had with Mom was just before she and my Dad were leaving on a long trip, and my mother was insanely (yes, insanely) busy getting ready. My mother was not a light traveller, but she was well-organized: Each pile of her clothing and toiletries on my childhood bed was topped with a list with checkmarks and codes to catalogue what was packed and what was left to do.
All the organization in the world didn’t buy her enough hours in the day, and she was stressed getting ready for both the trip and the holidays. I suggested perhaps she cut back on the menu a little bit: maybe skip making her grav lax this once. Not only would it save her time, I knew lifting the heavy slate off the fish to drain it daily was getting to be a chore for her.
“We’ll see,” she said, “but you girls love it so much…”
“Seriously, Mom. We will be fine without it. Its just this once.”
My mother made the grav lax—along with all her other usual dishes. As we always do, my sisters and I picked it from the cutting board as she sliced, and she waved her knife in the air, laughingly threatening to chop off our fingers if we didn’t stop eating it before she could even put it out.
She made the grav lax because we love it, and because it was just one more way, in a lifetime full of ways, that she showed us she loves us.
The holidays were especially fun that year. Like all families, we have years where we bicker more, or someone is on someone’s nerves, or maybe we are just less appreciative of each other— and years of good-natured teasing and fun, when everyone helps out, and conversation is warm, lively, and punctuated with laughter. Fortunately, we have many more of the latter—but the year before their trip was particularly great. It was so much fun, in fact, that I am fairly certain someone laughed so hard soda came out his nose; so fun that even those of us with long drives home lingered. Finally, hours later than planned, we gathered our little foil packages with the leftover grav lax, wished Mom good luck with her packing, and whispered to Dad that he better get started with his.
Weeks later our worlds were shattered when our mother unexpectedly died, and we struggled through the next year until the holidays again came upon us, bleak and heavy, as though without our mother Thanksgiving would have no soul. My husband and I planned the menu: I would make the grav lax. I found the neatly typed recipe in her wooden recipe box she had covered with leftover kitchen wallpaper.
I followed the recipe exactly as written. Granted, I didn’t have that piece of slate she kept next to the basement fridge—the one we were never allowed to touch as kids. But I approximated its weight with my heaviest pan and a few cans. After the requisite three days, we took the grav lax out and I sliced a little piece off the end.
“It doesn’t taste right,” I said to my husband.
“It will be fine. The end always tastes different, because it’s smaller and absorbs all the cure.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, my voice trembling just a little.
He put his arm around me. “It will never taste as good to you as your mother’s, Babe. I’m so sorry.” He hugged me and we went back to cooking.
Soon, my younger sister Cynthie arrived with her kids, husband and in-law family. Then my older sister Barb came with her daughter and our Dad. The house was filling up with the sound of cousins reuniting, the bustle of packages and bags being set down, coats being hung, and drinks being offered. The holiday was here.
I stood at the counter and began slicing the grav lax. Cynthie came over, her big green eyes damp, and said hoarsely, “You made the grav lax.”
I put my head down and concentrated abnormally hard on slicing the fish. “Yup.”
She adjusted herself to holiday mode and called out jovially, “Hey Barb, check it out. Margie made the grav lax.” Barb came over to the counter and as they both reached for a piece of fish from my board I smiled.
“Whoa!” said Cynth, “That’s pretty salty!”
A loud, harsh, ugly sob burst out of me. I couldn’t make my mother’s grav lax, any more than I could make her magically reappear to be with us. But the minute that sob escaped, my sisters’ arms were around me, and we were all crying and laughing and hugging. My mother’s grav lax had once again nurtured our hearts and shown us love.
We have grav lax every year at the holidays now—and I am happy to report it is no longer too salty. Like our annual gathering, maybe some years it is better than others, but what matters most is we are all there together, nourishing each other while we laugh, bicker, joke and tease–and silently speak of love with cured fish.
To Barb and Cynth, sisters divine, with love