Turkey Tetrazzini With a Side of Dementia


We have always celebrated Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family. And for as long as I can remember, we have always had Turkey Tetrazzini for dinner, served on fancy holiday paper plates. It may not have been the most traditional or glamorous of Christmas meals, but I looked forward to it for 364 days of the year. The humble but hearty smell of the creamy noodle casserole welcomed me home to my grandparents’ house. It was the first sign that let me know Santa had made his customary early stop down Grandma’s chimney to fill the grandkids’ stockings while we were all at four o’clock Christmas Eve mass.The grownups wouldn’t even let us think about touching any presents until after dinner. And as anxious as I always was to begin the “big rip,” I never resented the Turkey Tetrazzini. I savored each bite as my parents, my aunts, and my uncles engaged in conversations sprinkled with lines from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. While we all took turns imitating our favorite quotes from Clark Griswold‘s Aunt Bethany, who brought a new level of hilarity to dementia, my Grandma constantly vacillated between the kitchen and her seat at the table.

“Oh, foo. I forgot the butter for the rolls.”

(chatter from the table: “Is your house on fire, Clark?” )

“Here, babe. I’ll get you some more milk.”

(chatter from the table: “Is Rusty still in the Navy?”)

“Oh, foo. We’re out of green beans. There’s more in the oven.”

(chatter from the table: “Grace? Ohh…she passed away thirty years ago.”)

“I’m going to go see if the kids need anything in the kitchen.” (which really meant she was going to see if my cousin Mike needed more ketchup for his anything and everything.)

(chatter from the table: “Oh, dear. Did I break wind?”)

Before long, my Grandpa would pipe up: “Peg, will you just sit down and eat? We’re all fine.” And she would. My Grandpa was notorious for having the last word on everything. He was also notorious for mixing up all the food on his plate before shoveling it down. “It all goes to the same place,” he would quip. I, however, preferred my Tetrazzini, my green beans, and my bread in separate bites so my taste buds could do their thang. Call me a connoisseur.

Seconds of Tetrazzini were usually doled out while my siblings and cousins chomped at the bit. “Are you guys done YET? Can’t you eat any FASTER?” Finally, everyone would have their fill and my Grandpa would usually say something like, “Boy, that was good. But thankfully I saved enough room for dessert before we open presents.” Cue the collective groan from the kids as we received yet another crash course in patience being a virtue.

Christmas Eve is still the one time of year I have Tetrazzini. But my Grandma isn’t the one making it anymore; my Grandpa isn’t around to tell her to sit down and eat it. And though we still quote Christmas Vacation ad nauseam, dementia isn’t quite as funny as it used to be. Because now we have our own Aunt Bethany: my Grandma. And her dementia is not the quirky, lovable kind that makes her wrap up her cat and a lime jello mold to bring to Christmas Eve dinner. It is the kind that makes her feel lonely because she is wondering when her husband, who has been dead for six years, will come to bring her home. It is the kind that brings on terrible mood swings and makes her mean to the ones she loves. It is the kind that ate away at most of her memories of her three trips to Ireland, her favorite place in the world…so much so that I could barely share my recent trip there with her, the person who just years ago would have been beaming with excitement to see my pictures. And it is the kind that turned a woman who would rarely sit down long enough to eat some Tetrazzini into a woman who now hardly ever gets out of her chair.

But I know that’s not my real Grandma. My real Grandma will always be the one who froze the leftover Thanksgiving turkey so she could make a non-traditional Christmas feast for her family. A feast that could be made ahead of time, popped into the oven, and served on fancy holiday paper plates, saving her time that she could instead spend with the ones she loved and who loved her…even if she rarely sat down to enjoy it.

Santa always put candy, pens and scotch tape in Grandma's stocking. I've never had an adequate supply of tape since Santa stopped visiting Grandma's house.
Santa always put candy, pens and scotch tape in Grandma’s stocking. I’ve never had an adequate supply of tape since Santa stopped visiting Grandma’s house.

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38 Responses

  1. Love it. And not just because I’m now craving turkey-tet at 7:30am. Food memories are the best memories. I also fully understand what you just described about your Gma … all too well. Do remember the better years … the REAL her, ok?

    • Unfortunately, it seems so many people can relate to this. And I do remember the better years, and there were a lot of them. Some of my best childhood memories involved one or more of my grandparents. And thankfully, I still see glimpses of the real Grandma every now and again. It just makes me sad that this is the way she is finishing life. She deserved better.

  2. I lost my grandfather to some form of dementia this year. We just did our best to see into his soul and love him through the illness. So many precious memories that you keep when they can’t anymore xxx

  3. Sniff, sniff! Laughs and tears. Thanks for the memories!

  4. As always, you have made me laugh through tears. What a wonderful memory of your grandparents and the family they raised. I was never a huge fan of Turkey Tetrazzini, but right now I would love some served on fancy paper plates. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Anne Nestor Blind

    Thanks Kelly! She would have been your BEST fan! And so proud of you! It is a heart wrenching disease that has left us with just the shell of our precious Mother and Grandma! We may still make the tetrazzini every Christmas Eve but it just doesn’t taste the same!

  6. Many in my family have died from Alzheimer’s or other dementia. I can kind of relate to your scotch tape caption in the last picture. My grandma always put those chocolate coated marshmallow Santas in our stockings. The first Christmas after she died, we found some in ours, and it just felt so wrong. I also suddenly am watching my mom, who is a lot like your grandma was, and wondering who she will become when the inevitable happens.

    • Oh yes!!! The chocolate marshmallow covered Santas. Those definitely made the cut for Grandma’s stockings. It’s a sad thing to know you mom will likely be dealing with the same thing. I often wonder if the disease is as terrible for the person who has it as it is for the family. Seeing them become someone they weren’t for their whole life is so hard. Prayers to you that you find strength to help her live with it.

  7. I miss my grandma so much that your last two paragraphs brought a tear…..good job! I love a mixture of comedy with a dash of poignancy!

  8. Touching and so poignant, Kelly. I’ve lost my mother, grandmother, aunt, to Huntington’s. The dementia is by far the toughest part. This is a lovely tribute; nice work.

    • Thank you so much. Sadly, I feel like my Grandma deserves and even better one. So sorry about your mother, grandmother and aunt. It must have been hard to see so many loved one affected by the same disease.

      • It has been a very difficult journey, that continues… as my siblings have it, and possibly their children. My grandmother loved Turkey Tetrazzini as well… yumminess! You’ve got me tempted to go get some Stouffers, which is as close as I’ll get without making it myself!

        As for your grandmother, I found this a very moving tribute… but if you feel she deserves more, explore that. I’m sure there are more stories to tell! 😉

        • Many more. I was reminded as I looked through some old pictures for this post. I’m sure I will devote more posts to her, and my other grandparents as well. I have been a very lucky girl with very close relationships to all four of them. They are some of the most wonderful people I have ever known.

          Sending prayers for you and your family as they deal with all of that. It’s so horrible that it terrorizes generation after generation. Good thing there is comfort food like tetrazzini to help us though.

  9. Crap….I really shouldn’t have read this at work because now I am crying in my office and probably have raccoon eyes! What a wonderful tribute to our Mema! We have been so lucky to have the most amazing grandparents. We had grandparents that were so present in our lives creating such wonderful memories for the whole family. While the memories in the post made me cry because that grandma is gone, I did find it so wonderful to re-live and remember all those Christmas Eves where we did have her! Oh and I love the “oh foo, I forgot the butter for the rolls” reference…made me smile! She always said “Oh Foo.” It is so tough not having grandpa here and now losing her to dementia. They were two of the first people besides mom and dad that I always wanted to share my news or thoughts with! Even now as an adult when something happens that I’m really excited about or proud of I still find myself wanting to run over to their house and share it with them. I miss that so so much! We will always have such special and wonderful memories though! Thanks for making me laugh and cry! :) You are to blame for my raccoon eyes though!

  10. How sweet. Always the good with the bad. Thank God for you there are lots of good memories that soften the sadness now. For me, I just hope that my grandkids will have such hopeful and satisfying memories of their grandparents!

  11. Ah, so heart-wrenching! I love that you’re able to remember these moments with such nuance–I can almost smell the tetrazzini cooking. What a great gift to give your children–memories of loved ones they wouldn’t have for themselves. I wish my family remembered more about my g-pa who passed before I was born.

    • I do want my children to know about them. Sadly, my maternal grandpa passes away with Grace was 2, so she has very little memory of him, and Michael none. But they still talk about him because we share stories with them. And neither of my kids have REALLY known my Grandma the way she was when I was growing. Thankfully, they do have a great relationship with my dad’s parents, and they are both old enough now that they will have their own wonderful memories of them.

  12. This made me tear up because the Grandpa (from my remember the time post this week) suffers from Alzheimer’s and it’s at a really bad stage. He’s not sure if my Grandma is his wife or his mother and he can’t drive or work in the yard anymore and he starts getting ready for church on Sunday at midnight so he’s not late. He rarely knows where he is and and you’re right, they aren’t the REAL versions of themselves, they are just sick, it’s an awful disease. wow, this comment is such a downer, sorry about that! Great post though! :)

  13. I absolutely loved this. And do you know what my favorite thing was? That she put Scotch tape in your stocking. My grandparents who were old even when I was a little girl used to put tennis balls in those little boxes that new checkbooks come in, and they would wrap them up and give them to us for Christmas. Perfection.

  14. Oh my, this is wonderful!! Thank you for bringing some warm smiles into my day.
    My grandmother was a beacon of light in my childhood!!!

    Also, I finally created a FB page centered for us blossoming writers, photographers and such to post questions, work for feedback, etc. I would love for you to visit. It would be so nice to have a little community of “us wonderful people” WINK, WINK
    Stop on by, tap the like so I can see your pretty little face, if you are not fearful of leaving evidence you came by. https://www.facebook.com/CaitlinEliotWriter
    (my pseudonym is Caitlin– The Page Linda and Caitlin)

  15. I loved this post. It reminds me of how we need to cherish every day with our loved ones. It also makes me want to make your family some turkey tetrazini.
    I do intend to participate in this linkup thing one day,. I just have to get the hang of the very easy instructions. Since I haven’t so far, it seems rude to join in the reading of the ones who have participated. But I’m reading nonetheless.

    • We will look forward to you joining us one of these weeks. You just need to find the right topic to move you into nostalgic wanderings :) In the meantime, read away, my friend!!!! And thank you for the compliment. I welcome unsolicited turkey tetrazzini any day of the week.

  16. What a great story. Family dinners had different rules depending on who was hosting. I remember one meal where there was a kid’s table, and we were served first, but we weren’t allowed to start eating until everyone at the main table – in the next room – were served as well. There’s patience is a virtue, and then there’s making children watch their food get cold.

    • Yeah, that does sound pretty cold (little joke…’bout that big.). But kids’ tables were the best….only I didn’t appreciate them until after I was too old to sit at them :)

  17. This is so awesome! Christmas Vacation is my family’s love language–we all know it by heart and are ready to bust out with , “Beeeeeautiful, Clark!” whenever needed!

  18. […] two rooms felt essentially unchanged. Our family could have easily sat around the table for some Turkey Tetrazzini or gathered to open presents on Christmas Eve without feeling as though much time had […]

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