Orphan Week Essay: Orphaned At 16, Or How I Learned To Cook Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving day. I’m sixteen years old, the eldest of four children, orphaned as of the night before. Well, parentless. My folks won a five-day, all expense paid vacation for two that had to be used by December 1st. A free vacation is a free vacation, so off they went to the Bahamas, leaving me in charge of three loud kids ranging in age from six to 14.

But who needed parents, anyway? I had a driver’s license, a fridge full of food, and an aunt’s telephone number in case of emergency.

My younger sister, the eight-year-old, complained for months about not having Mom around to cook a Thanksgiving dinner. She made me promise to make the complete meal. I knew how to cook stuff: hamburgers, broiled chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches that were mostly un-charred. How hard could turkey be?

“Not only will I cook a turkey,” I told the siblings airily, “I’ll drive us all into NYC so we can watch the Thanksgiving parade in person. It’ll be the most memorable Thanksgiving ever.” Turns out I was right — but not exactly in the way I’d intended.

The day started fine. I awoke early to get Tom the Turkey ready according to Mom’s  directions: rub the outside of the bird with garlic powder and paprika, cut the potatoes for roasting, follow the directions on the box of bread stuffing. Five hours roasting time! What could possibly, possibly, go wrong?

I shoved the pan into the oven, gathered the kids, and took off for the city, a mere 45 minutes away. It was crowded and cold–-but the thing about the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is that the balloons are high up. You don’t have to be at the front to see Snoopy and Mickey float past. We heard bands, bought warm pretzels, and generally had a terrific time.Back in the car, the siblings chatted excitedly, and I let their praise wash over me. Roast me, if you will. Just as I congratulated myself for pulling off the first part of the day in an A-plus manner, the car began to slow down. I pumped the gas; the car went slower. Oh shit! I guided the car onto the shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” my brother, the youngest, asked.

“You’re out of gas,” the eight-year-old shrieked.How she knew to look at the gas gauge is beyond me – but she was right.“Wow, you sure are stupid,” the fourteen-year-old cranky teen growled.

“What are we going to do?” my little sister cried. “We’re going to be stuck on the highway forever.”

“Nobody panic! I’ll figure it out.” I got out and attempted to flag down a car. No one stopped. After a while, Little Sister stepped out.

“I’m cold.”

An easy fix. “So get back in the car.”

“But I have to go to the bathroom,” she whined.

Not an easy fix. “You’re gonna just have to hold it!” I barked—which did nothing except make her cry.

An eight-year-old sobbing at the side of the road does get noticed. An older guy pulled over. In a real Thanksgiving miracle, he had an emergency gas can in the back of his truck.

I beamed at Little Sister. “See! It’s all going to work out.”

She gave me an aggrieved look but didn’t say anything, probably because she was trying not to pee all over the car’s upholstery. We made it to the exit, a gas station—and a bathroom. Disaster averted.

And then… I remembered the turkey.

I still had to wrestle Tom the Turkey. I had left him cooking and cooking…and cooking. When we got home, the first thing I did was pull the poor guy out of the oven. He wasn’t burnt exactly. Just well-done. I scraped roasted potatoes into a bowl and dug out the stuffing. Things were going to be fine, I kept telling myself. The spoon hit something.

“What’s that?” the still traumatized little sister, watching me carefully, shrieked.I held up a small bag. “Um. I have no idea.”“Maybe it’s a prize like in cereal boxes,” my brother said.

I cut it open with a knife. We peered in. There was Tom’s heart, liver, and neck.

“Cool!” my brother said.

“You’re supposed to take the bag out before you cook the turkey,” the eight-year-old screeched. “Don’t you know anything?”“Guess not!” I huffedMy teenage sister gave me a disgusted look. “I am not going to eat that turkey. It’s filled with salmonella.”

“Is not!” My brother didn’t know what salmonella is––but he was hungry.

“Chickens have salmonella, not turkeys,” I snapped. “Plus, the bag stayed closed. So any salmonella, if there is salmonella, which there isn’t, stayed inside the bag.”

Before anyone could say anything else, I started slicing pieces of meat. Raggedy, very dry pieces. Because not only did Mom forgot to tell me to pull the bag from the turkey’s butt before I stuffed it full of bread and onions, she also forgot to tell me you’re supposed to baste a turkey as it cooks.

The four us sat at the table without a word. The potatoes were burnt, the turkey was dry, and stuffing from a box does not taste like Mom’s homemade fare. However, there was cranberry sauce. It turns out that cranberry sauce, lots and lots of cranberry sauce, makes dry turkey edible.

Nobody got salmonella poisoning. My little sister, however, now grown up, is still traumatized. To this day, she worries about running out of gas on a highway. And whenever it’s my turn to cook Thanksgiving dinner, the first thing any of my siblings asks is, “Did you remember to take out the bag?”

Carol Tanzman is Deputy Editor Liana’s mom!, and also she writes books. Her contemporary YA thriller Dancergirl is available now at bookstores and  online.

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