Turkeys, June Cleaver’s pearls and Mom’s stuffing

Turkeys, June Cleaver’s pearls and Mom’s stuffing

“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” —Arthur Carlson in “WKRP in Cincinnati,” from the “Turkeys Away” episode (1978)

And that’s how you write one of the most memorable lines in television history. You just sit down, focus and type 10 words.

Of course, if it were that easy, the remote control would never have been invented. Everything on the tube would be intelligent and well thought out, which, as anyone past infancy knows, isn’t true.

But it’s still worth pausing every now and then to remember that without writers, actors would have nothing to say, directors would have nothing to create and viewers might as well read a good book.

A quick recap of “Turkeys Away” for those who may not know it:

Mr. Carlson, a struggling radio station’s general manager, concocts a secret promotion to be carried live on Thanksgiving Day. As the news director reports from the scene, live turkeys are thrown from a helicopter and plummet to the parking lot, where they hit, in another of the episode’s best lines, “like sacks of wet cement.”

All of which sets up the “As God as my witness” closing comment.

It is perfect, which brings us to my mother’s Thanksgiving stuffing.

As faithful readers may recall, Mom wasn’t from the June Cleaver school of culinary arts, fashioning fantastic meals while wearing a pleated dress, pearls and an apron that never saw a gravy stain, her hair swept up in a French braid, her fingernails polished just so.

No, Mom was more of a harried short-order cook who brooked no nonsense, more than happy to have a complaining child go hungry, taking savage pleasure in scraping entire plates into the garbage.

“Guess you won’t be wanting seconds,” she’d snarl from behind a veil of smoke, “and of course, you’ll be getting no dessert. Now off with you. Finish your homework. I demand all A’s next time.”

I exaggerate for effect, obviously, but there’s a kernel of canned-corn truth in that contrived scene. My mother wasn’t content to be a typical housewife, choosing instead to put her master’s degree to use as an associate professor while, at the same time, raising three children, whom she carried and bore in the span of 40 or so months.

It wasn’t exactly a family plan drawn up in Dr. Spock’s playbook, but she made it work, somehow, with the help of my father, of course, who was right by her side through it all, though he wasn’t all that great in the kitchen, either, tested by a toaster and utterly flummoxed by anything more complicated than filling an ice tray.

But they loved each other — and the three of us — which is probably why holiday meals at our house still carry that indelible image of togetherness, the sense that as long as we were as one, all was fine.

Mom, though, was a lone huntress when it came to doing the shopping for Thanksgiving dinner. Whereas Dad sometimes invited me to join him when stalking the ideal tree for Christmas, tramping through the woods for hours, Mom preferred the solitude of an assassin on a secret mission, confident in her killing skills.

Which was why I was startled when she asked if I would care to accompany her to the grocery as she laid in supplies for the big day.

I agreed because by that fall I was 13 years old, an eighth-grader who understood that when the world changed — as it seemed to daily — it was a good idea to get out in front of that rolling wave.

And I also thought, “Here’s my chance to figure out her stuffing.”

I remember the crowded aisles and the way my mother steered her cart through them like a ship’s captain navigating the shoals, one hand on the handle as she reached for the things she wanted, plucking a frozen Butterball from the dozens on display, knowing the properties she sought by sight and heft and price tag. Up and down the lanes we sailed — potatoes and pumpkin pie fixings added to the pile — before she stopped and looked directly at me, smiling.

“I need two loaves of white bread,” she said. “Find them for me.”

And that was my contribution to the whole expedition. A couple of bags of off-brand sliced bread probably cost less than a dollar, but I knew they were the key to the star of the show, the bird notwithstanding. Because for as long as I could remember, on the night before Thanksgiving, Mom would tear up the bread and leave it on the kitchen counter in a big glass bowl, slowly drying.

That year she let me do the honors, and I think I earned an A.

But here’s the thing. As I watched her the next morning, all she did was add in a stick of butter and stir in some boiling water, using only salt and pepper and sage to season the stuffing. It couldn’t have been more plain. I remember thinking, “That’s it? That’s all?”

More than 50 years have passed since that Thanksgiving, and I’ve helped prepare my share of feasts, but I’ve never come close to equaling the savory goodness of Mom’s stuffing. I’ve gone my own way since then, using onions and oysters, and it’s aromatic.

And I understand there’s a reason I can’t replicate what Mom did. It’s the same principle that made that episode of “WKRP” so enduring, so universal. Some things we just aren’t meant to know.

Ten words: As God as my witness, I thought simple meant easy.

Mike Dewey can be reached at Carolinamiked@aol.com or 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join the fun on his Facebook page, where giblet gravy is always simmering.

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