My mother carefully set each fork, plate and water goblet at the Thanksgiving table with tears in her eyes.
Our family is as closely knit as a fisherman's sweater, but this was going to be a difficult holiday. My brother had just begun a new job in Texas. Eric was the first of us to move out of town, and it left a big hole in the fabric of our family.
In order to understand this story, you also need to know that I come from a long line of wonderful cooks. My grandmother's first job was as a baker for a convent in rural Austria. She and my grandfather later ran a bar/restaurant on Buffalo's East Side.
My mother fashions a perfect pie crust from scratch in minutes. One of my sisters runs a food service operation for a large law firm. My other sister concocts delectable dishes for parties. Even my dad cooks. And then there's me.
For that Thanksgiving, the first one without Eric, I was charged with making the pies. As the Macy's parade occupied my children, I soon had every surface of the kitchen covered with flour, dough, spices and bowls of pumpkin filling. The aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg soon filled the house.
When I pulled the pies from the oven an hour later, I was astonished to see the prettiest ones I had ever produced: no lumpy clods of crust, no fissures cleaving the smooth filling, no charcoal darkened spots from spills. I preened as I pressed pecan halves into the perfect surfaces of each pie and set them aside to cool.
By late afternoon, it was time for us to pack up and leave for mom's. The wet day had suddenly turned to freezing rain, coating everything with a thin layer of ice, which made loading the car even more difficult. I covered the first pie with plastic wrap and carried it out to the car, where I lovingly placed it in the middle of the back seat. Leaving the car door open, I returned to the kitchen.
When I came out of the house, hands full with two other pies, our 180-pound German shepherd slipped outside ahead of me. Seeing the open car door as his dinner invitation, he lumbered into the back seat. I watched helplessly in horror as his huge paw hit that perfect pumpkin pie smack in the middle.
I never calmed down, all the way over the river and through the rain to grandmother's house. I sputtered and fumed for the whole trip.
When we arrived, I twisted out of the car, grabbed the paw-printed pie and stomped my way into the house, walking right past my brother, who had slipped into town to surprise us all. I was so furious that I didn't see him, even when he called my name. It wasn't until I was making a second trip back into the house that I noticed him standing there in the room.
The bear hug that Eric gave me blew away my stormy clouds. A spoiled pie no longer consumed my attention. It was time to rejoice and be thankful for this unexpected time to be together.
I still get teased about that incident. Never again do I want to be so blinded to what is really important. When I am troubled, I remind myself to take a long and careful look around me, to pick up my head and see the things that are truly priceless. They are often standing right there in front of me. For these God-given blessings, I am truly thankful.
GRETCHEN BALDAUF lives in Kenmore.