To me, holidays mean one real simple thing: Family.

I see Mama and me barefoot in the kitchen in our rattiest T-shirts with dough-covered fingers and flour-covered countertops. It’s Thanksgiving morning and she’s been up hard at work since Lord knows when — probably before the sun — preparing all our favorite dishes for our little family. That doesn’t count the day-before cooking she’s already slaved over. 

Then I wake up — much after the sun — to the sound of Loretta Lynn on the record player, ready to get hands my dirty. Mama’s teaching me how to make dressin’ — hey, all y’all “stuffing” eaters just go ahead and turn the page, OK?

“Now, the dressing’s gotta be just right,” she tells me, “just like Nanny made it.” 

She explains it has to be soupy enough in the dish to come out of the oven firm yet not dry, and moist but not wet. It’s gotta be made with the perfect batch of homemade cornbread and the right amount of celery. The most important part is the sage seasoning; it gives it that extra touch. 

But you’ve gotta have the right hands for it. If they ain’t my mama’s hands, I’ve got a hard time trusting them.

Year after year each time we sit down to eat, Mama sits and wonders if her batch of dressing was truly made just right. But I don’t remember a year where it was even a little off. In fact, it seems to get better and better with time. She couldn’t mess it up if she tried.

But it could be too soupy, too sagey or even have onions — yuck — in it, and it’d still be just right to me. Because after all, Thanksgiving isn’t about what the dressing tastes like; it’s who you’re eating it with.

Most of the time, it’s been only Mama, “Hubba” — my stepdad, for those of you who have read my columns about him and know the story behind his name — and me. Sometimes my stepbrother Jeffrey will join us; sometimes my brother Cory, sister-in-law Kristi and my three nieces, Zoey Marie, Katy Jade and Hailey Madison, who live in Georgia, are there. Other times we spend it with our extended family in a room full of cousins and everybody’s mama ’n ’em. Last year, my boyfriend Ryne and I spent the first half of the day at Mama’s then headed out to his family’s get-together.

This year we’ll spend it at Mama’s and my sister Andi will come home from the nursing home for the day to be with us. Usually we take her a plate and spend some time there with her, but this year will be special. 

Other than that, this year will be much like every other year. Mama will be slaving in the kitchen, cooking enough food for an army even though there will be only a few of us. There will be so many side dishes we won’t be able to fit them all on one plate. I’ll be pitching a fit about my food touching. Hubba — who was still recovering from the deadly West Nile Virus with a feeding tube recently removed for Thanksgiving two years ago — will have an appetite bigger than all of us combined and fill his plate several inches high then go back for more. 

We’ll all ask Mama if she needs any help but all she’ll want us to do is stay out of her kitchen. We’ll ask her over and over what time it’ll be ready and I’ll sneak a piece of ham even though I’m not supposed to while we’re waiting on whichever casserole is finishing up in the oven.

Most of all, the company — and the dressing — will be just right. Family is the most important ingredient and I love every step and piece of the recipe that makes mine whole.

I’m so thankful we’re all healthy, all happy and all together. Nothing else in the world matters on a day like Thanksgiving at my mama’s house.

I am blessed to have a family, friends, co-workers and fur babies I hold so dear and hope everyone enjoys their Thanksgiving like I know I will.

Those who aren’t able to financially put a holiday feast on the table should without a doubt head out to Benjamin Russell’s cafeteria from 10:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. Thursday and get a free feast and some fellowship. If you’re feeling up for some charity, volunteer to help.

Let us all take a moment to pray for those hurting and grieving during this holiday season, and let’s hold our family members and friends a little closer. Life is precious.

No matter where you are, who you’re with or what you’re doing, take comfort in the fact you’re alive to see another day. We can’t ask for much more than that.

Santana Wood is the managing editor of The Outlook.