Traditions Contained In Meat

The stuffing was a secret recipe, I was told, passed down only to Bosworths.  This was an uncomfortable reminder that I had a stepfather.  And that I was not really his son.

Thankfully, my stepdad’s stuffing was kick-ass.  It wasn’t light or fluffy; it was made of meat, a heavy, florid piece of stuffing that weighed down the end of your fork.  It was by far the best thing about Thanksgiving; the turkeys were sometimes dry, often we ran low on gravy, but no matter what happened, Bruce’s special stuffing kicked ten brands of ass.

Every year, Barry – Bruce’s brother – razzed him about the stuffing.  Well, this looks pretty good, Barry would allow, but I think you did a better job two years ago.  This looks to be a little dry this time around.

Does it, Bruce would say.  He didn’t grin.  He didn’t grin much anyway.  He had one of the greatest straight faces in history.

Barry would taste it.  I dunno, he’d say, after a thoughtful chewing.  I mean, it’s passable.  But the texture’s a little off.  You remember back in 2003? He’d poke his wife with his elbow.  Now that was a perfect stuffing.  You got it right that once.  This will do, I guess.

It took me years to realize that Barry didn’t actually have a running tally of annual stuffing reviews.  He was just giving Bruce shit.  But until I was well into my thirties, I thought that Barry was actually cataloguing and storing each year’s stuffing.

Truth was, Bruce did it well.  He did everything well.  He was not the most imaginative man, but what he set his hand to, he did with extreme (and often intimidating) competence.  And the stuffing, which remained a mystery – he shooed me out of the kitchen while he made it – was done the old-fashioned way, with a cast iron meat grinder and time.

I didn’t cook.  But Bruce wouldn’t share.  This was a Bosworth tradition, he told me, and frankly I wasn’t much of a stepson to him.  I’d never quite gotten over Bruce stepping into the space where my Dad used to be, and whereas Bruce was relentlessly pragmatic and dour, I was emotional and flighty in only the way a rich white kid could be.  We fought a lot, because my mother spoiled me, and Bruce felt as though he needed to be a mediating factor, and things came close to blows a couple of times.  We weren’t close.

That changed when I got my own stepkids.

It wasn’t that I was in Bruce’s shoes, so much as the fact that we weren’t under each other’s feet any more, and I could appreciate him from a distance.  I told my kids, “Be warned, Bruce is hard to get along with,” and they steeled themselves for a jerky father figure… but when my Mother and Bruce had departed, Erin and Amy looked at me and asked, “What was wrong with him?  He seemed like a great guy.”

Which he was.  He’d mellowed, I’d grown more responsible.  And I was able to appreciate him not for what he wasn’t – for no one could be my Dad – but for the way he quietly provided support to my Mom, always making sure she followed her dreams in the most realistic way possible, the quiet support I hadn’t noticed when he was too busy trying to kick my ass into shape.  And while we’d never been flat-out enemies, we certainly hadn’t been friends.

It was time, I thought, to rectify that.

So when I went home next time, I looked at Bruce through new eyes – and Bruce, I don’t think, ever looked at me with new eyes, because he was the sort of person who never had to.  He didn’t hold grudges.  Now that I had a job and was paying the rent and living my own way, he was content.  That’s what he’d wanted.  And so Bruce and I began to piece together a friendship, talking on our own once in a while without the glue of my mother to hold us together.

Eventually, I sent him a Father’s Day card – well, a stepfather’s day card.  But for the first time since my Mom had made me as a teenager, I acknowledged Bruce as a part of my family. He never sent me any card back, but then again he really couldn’t – every occasion that called for a card, my Mother would send and he’d co-sign obligingly.

But he did, one day, give me the recipe to the stuffing.  He didn’t make a big deal out of it.  He didn’t have to, and it wasn’t his way anyway.  I knew what it meant.

To this day, as I do on every Thanksgiving, I made the Secret Stuffing, and I share the recipe with no one.  This is a small ritual, which I’m sad to carry out mostly alone; my mother no longer makes it, as her local grandkids don’t like it.  Adam, his lone biological son, also makes it.  We eat it, and it’s delicious and dark and sagey, and feel the weight in the pit of our stomachs, and we raise a fork in tribute to Bruce.

I wasn’t the kid he wanted.  I’m not the son he would have chosen, nor do I know if he ever would have called me son if he had not passed away of Lou Gehrig’s disease three years ago.  But I am his Stuffing Heir.

That’ll do, Bruce.  That’ll do.

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