The Story of Opal and Aunt Colleen’s Casserole — A Thanksgiving Tale
I have such great memories about Thanksgiving. We had a few Thanksgiving dinners at home, but for the most part, in my family, Thanksgiving meant a road trip! To this day, nothing makes me happier than my annual trek up to my sister's house in Plano, Texas. This year, I'm going to forego that pleasure so that I can spend Thanksgiving with my daughter, Annie. Now, Annie insists on doing all the cooking, so I know it will all be good. That wasn't always the case when I was a kid, and we had those huge family Thanksgiving dinners.
I suppose that, in every family in the world, there is that one relative who can't cook, yet insists on cooking. In my family, it was Aunt Colleen, and her special macaroni and tuna casserole. Of course, the whole concoction is nothing more than Tuna Helper with Aunt Colleen's secret ingredient (cracker crumbs) thrown in for good measure. One thing about Aunt Colleen's Mac and tuna casserole: there was always plenty left over. My dog, Nicky, loved it.
Aunt Collen was very nice, and no one wanted to hurt her feelings, but her "casserole" was so bad that it almost contaminated everything else on the plate. If you've ever smelled the bait hold on a boat, you have some idea of the aroma of Aunt C's casserole. You knew that some sort of fish was involved, but you had an uneasy feeling that the fish was not so much caught as it just washed up on shore.
One year, it was decided that we would have Thanksgiving dinner at my grandfather's house. My grandfather had fairly recently remarried after my grandmother passed away. All I can say is that he must have been really lonely. Her name was Opal, and she had no time for us grandkids. For our part, there was no love lost, but we adored our grandfather and, out of our love for him, we tried to be nice to Opal. Some folks just won't let you be nice to them. At least, that's the justification we used when we had had enough of Opal.
Turkey Day finally arrived, and the day dawned cold and clear. We kids got up at what we thought was the crack of dawn, and the house was already filled with the smells of turkey baking. Mixed in with the wonderful aroma of that turkey were other great holiday scents. There had to be three or four different kinds of pie baking, as well as just a hint of cornbread dressing. It was shaping up to be a fine Thanksgiving.
Around 10 a.m. or so, the rest of the family started arriving. Uncle Bud showed up first with Aunt Ruby. It wasn't long before the house was beginning to fill up, and with each new person to walk through the door were more wonderful aromas issuing from covered dishes. We knew them all by smell! Aunt Polly's candied yams walked in, followed by Uncle Jim's fresh green beans and bacon. Sarah came in with a ton of delicious items all picked fresh from her garden. The parade of food continued as relatives streamed through the door of my grandfather's house. We were all giddy at the prospect of tearing into these wonderful dishes in just a matter of hours. Then, the doorbell rang.
Everyone did a quick inventory of who had arrived so far. I think the knowledge that it could only be Aunt Colleen hit everyone at once. As I looked around the room, I saw a few hopeful faces. "Perhaps she didn't make her casserole this year." That was followed by the even more hopeful thought, "Perhaps she didn't bring anything at all." That would be good, too.
Those hopeful thoughts were still hanging in the air when, suddenly, the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen were wiped out by a smell coming from the general vicinity of Aunt Colleen. Only two things smell like the stench that was overtaking the room, but since there were no horses nearby, it had to be the dreaded mac and tuna casserole. Everyone in the room tried their best not to inhale until the offending dish was safely out smell range. It was then that my cousins and I hatched our devious plot to deal with Opal.
Opal wasn't exactly a ball of energy, and once she was firmly situated in "her" chair, she wasn't likely to move except for food. We kids decided to take advantage of the situation. We started right in, bragging about Aunt C's casserole. We had her convinced that she was in for an epicurean delight.
I was elected to go to Opal and offer to fix a plate for her. Naturally, she accepted, and our plan was as good as done. While I was schmoozing Opal, my other cousins, Cecil, Jackie, and Linda were busy preparing Opal's plate for her. Right in the middle of the plate, between the green beans and the yams, there was a glob of casserole. We figured, and correctly I might add, that Opal, out of a desire to be accepted by the rest of the family, would make a big fuss over everything on her plate.
Earlier in the day, we kids had been promised a trip up in the Ozarks to a state park. We could hardly contain ourselves thinking about all the fun we would have at the park. We could hardly wait for dinner to be over. Meanwhile, we're all watching Opal out of the corners of our eyes. We could tell that she was really working hard to choke down all that casserole on her plate, but I swear she looked like she wasn't going to be able to go much longer.
The wonderful dinner came to an end and, if Aunt C had bothered to check, she would have found a serving of her casserole hidden under a slice of bread or uneaten mashed potatoes on just about every plate. It seemed that we had gotten by another Thanksgiving dinner without having to actually eat any mac and tuna.
Once everything was cleaned and put away, it was time to load up the cars to head up into the Ozarks. Everyone was ready to get on the road, but one person wasn't ready. As we all headed out to our cars to leave, my grandfather called out, "Opal! We're ready to go." From down the hall came a muffled voice from behind the bathroom door, "Go ahead without me."
Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you, Aunt Colleen, wherever you are.