• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

Thanksgiving: Gravy, Graves, and Sex-Drunk Hoot-Owls

My apologies for taking so long to get my Thanksgiving wishes up for you. Thanksgiving was delightful, but busy—the Most-Eaten dishes (the ones everyone gobbles and raves over—it’s different every time) this time were a new one, mushroom pate’ surrounded by sliced pears sprinkled with gorgonzola crumbles and walnuts and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette (served with fresh French bread)—and the always popular standby, deviled eggs. [g]

I did the usual fruit-stuffed turkey (a couple of nice people had seen me mention this and asked for the recipe—I don’t think you could actually dignify it by calling it a “recipe”; I literally stuff the turkey with fruit (and onions and garlic and baby carrots—but mostly whatever’s in the fruit bowl; this year it was apples, oranges, and grapes, and I forgot to buy baby carrots). I don’t like bready stuffing or dressing, and since I’m cooking, I get to eat what I like (the main reason for cooking, if you ask me)), but since I was lacking carrots and used oranges (which I usually don’t), the bird was even juicier than usual—the benefit of this particular stuffing method is that you never have a dry turkey, and the subsequent gravy is wonderful; light and very flavorful (now I do sort of have a gravy recipe, which I’ll post on the website, along with a Thanksgiving excerpt from AN ECHO IN THE BONE—www.dianagabaldon.com)—and consequently arrived on the platter in several pieces [cough].

Well, you’re just going to carve it up anyway…though I must here recount an anecdote my husband told me: his mother—a famously good cook, and justly proud of it—had guests one Thanksgiving, and Something Happened to the turkey, causing it to literally collapse. One of the guests viewed the wreckage on the platter, laughed, and said, “Kay, that bird looks like somebody shot it out of the sky with a howitzer!” My mother-in-law—also famously red-headed, and with a famous temper to match—replied, “If you think you can do it better, you son-of-a-b!tch, fix it yourself! Get out of my house!” (My husband says the guest didn’t leave, but apologized, and a nice meal was eventually had by all.)

So a lovely time was had by all here, too, followed by a pleasantly langourous evening. Friday I arose refreshed, and—not being reckless enough to go anywhere near a shopping mall on Black Friday—spent the whole day working on manuscripts: writing another 2000 words of AN ECHO IN THE BONE, and copy-editing for my son, who’s just finishing up the final stages of his first novel (yes, if and when it gets published, I’ll tell you all about it). Followed by a late-night turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with sliced pears, walnuts and gorgonzola (and a little mayonnaise to keep the walnuts from falling out), with a glass of white wine—the best part of a Thanksgiving weekend.

Fine. So yesterday, I had it in mind to answer email, finish writing an update for the website, choose an excerpt to post, and possibly begin the Christmas cards (no, don’t write to tell me to skip the Christmas cards so I can finish the book; I only send cards to distant relatives, close friends, editors, and agents, and I can manage twenty Christmas cards without slowing my progress appreciably). The universe had other plans.

Yesterday has to have been one of the more surreal days in a life that’s contained quite a few. As I was brushing my teeth, my husband came in and suggested that as the weather was nice (it had rained for the preceding three days), we might drive down to Tucson, and visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, since we hadn’t been there for ages. (This is a wonderful outdoor live “museum,” featuring the animals, ethnography, geology, and botany of the Sonoran and Anza-Borrego Desert. We’ve been members for years, and usually get down there every three or four months. If any of you who live in the area or pass through are interested, here is their website.)

I thought this was a terrific idea. The email and Christmas cards could certainly wait, and if I took a wodge of Sam’s manuscript to proof-read in the car, I’d still end up with my evening work hours free and clear to work on ECHO, so why not? (Besides, when you’re a writer, you have to prioritize, in order to get the important things done. My personal priorities are 1) family, 2) book, 3) exercise, and 4) garden. You’ll notice that “housework,” “TV watching,” and “taking part in casting discussions” aren’t on that list. Going to the ASDM with Doug definitely falls under #1 there, and also neatly takes care of #3, as circumnavigating the whole place is easily a three or four-mile walk.)

So away we went, and had a wonderful time. The weather was ideal—about 68 degrees, clear and bright—and all the animals were out. The animal residents of the Museum are mostly in natural-habitat (very large) enclosures, which means that it’s just about as easy to spot them in there as it would be in their natural habitats. We normally manage to see about 2/3 of them, but seldom spot the wild turkeys, the deer, or the coyotes.

We’d been batting a thousand, though, approaching the coyote habitat (which is a huge enclosure liberally studded with rocks, mesquite, cactus and….well, they essentially just put up invisible mesh around a quarter-acre of desert); we’d seen mountain lion, bobcats (gato montes; all the legends and signs are bilingual, and it’s very entertaining to back-translate the Spanish names, on occasion. “Cat of the mountains,” it means), porcupine, gray fox, wolves (curled up asleep, but still, we saw them), and the turkey (very gorgeous in the sunlight, with his red head and blue and green iridescent feathers—a far cry from the overbred white creatures who end up on Thanksgiving platters—and remind me sometime to tell you the story of my husband, my father-in-law, the cattle round-up, and the ten thousand white turkeys…), and the deer.

So we were making bets on our chances of seeing a coyote—remarking as we did so that in fact, our chances of seeing a coyote were a lot better at home than they were at the ASDM. We live right in the middle of Scottsdale, but coyotes routinely roam our neighborhood; one day we were driving down our street and saw an enormous coyote sitting at the bus stop on the corner, completely nonchalant. I often see them crossing streets in broad daylight, and last New Year’s Day, found myself following one up the street—this is a completely urban part of town, mind—while out for a walk, and often hear them carrying on at night. (Coyotes do not actually “howl,” btw. Wolves howl. Coyotes gibber, wail, and laugh like maniacs. That’s not a figure of speech, either; they laugh like maniacs, and it’s one eerie thing to listen to in the dead of night, which is when I usually hear them.)

Well, it was a day in a thousand—we saw not one, but two coyotes, trotting up and down about their business. We also saw the beaver (who was awake, for once), the river otter, prairie dogs, chipmunks, a herd of javelina, and more snakes than you could shake a stick at. (To say nothing of all the cool geology and mineral exhibits, but you can pretty much count on the spectacular chunks of wulfenite, azurite, and malachite still being where you saw them last, waiting patiently to be admired again.)

Rolled home, accompanied by Doug, a Dove ice-cream bar, and a large chunk of son’s manuscript (good book, I’m pleased to report). It’s nearly winter, and the days are drawing in; it’s getting dark by 5:30, which is when we arrived home, and the Great Horned owls were At It already. (Late November/early December is their courting season, and they’re hooting to and fro in ecstasy all night long. One of them was sitting in a tall palm tree right next to our house—and if you don’t think seeing a Great Horned owl in a palm tree is a slightly surreal experience…)

My first act on returning home, when Sam is visiting, is to greet his dogs (the Little Bad Dogs, aka Charlie the corgi and Otis the pug) and march them directly out back to go potty, as they’re very unreliable about this duty if not sternly supervised, dog-door notwithstanding.

We stepped out through the back door of the garage—and they immediately shot for the Back Forty (as we refer to the wild half-acre that forms the back half of our property; there are a couple of horse corrals with a ramada back there, and a tackroom (no, no horses at present; there have been and likely will be again at some point, but none now), but otherwise nothing but eucalyptus trees (the owls adore these), mesquite, palo verde and vast expanses of tumble-weed), barking. I looked to see what they were barking at, didn’t spot anything (no surprise), and paused to have a quick look at the garden and draw up a mental chore list for Sunday afternoon (prime gardening time): prune back grapevines, finish harvesting pomegranates (we had a plague of woodpeckers this year, so the crop is much reduced), rip out wads of mint, trim and fertilize the roses…emerging from the garden, I saw that Otis and Charlie were still out back; I could see them under the big eucalyptus, sniffing around.

OK, slight digression here. We had to put down our oldest dog (Really Old. I estimated that in dog years, she was 112. We’d been checking her every morning for the last year, to see if she was still breathing. She was, but having an increasingly hard time of it, poor old thing), Molly, about ten days ago. We bury all the dogs under the big eucalyptus out back, and had planted Molly with due ceremony next to her old pal, Ajax.

It’s not unusual for dogs to go smell and scratch at the grave of a recently deceased acquaintance—this behavior usually followed by ceremonially peeing on the gravesite—so I thought that’s what Otis and Charlie were about, and strolled out to join them, thinking to pay my respects and put a rose on the grave (the roses do very well this time of year, since it’s finally cool enough that the fresh blossoms don’t fry on emergence).

Now, it was getting dark, and a good thing, too. For a minute or two, I had no idea what I was looking at. Then I knew what I was looking at, but no idea why I was looking at it. Somebody had shoveled most of the dirt out of Molly’s grave, revealing the neat rectangle Doug had made for her—and there was something blobbish, dark, wet and nasty-looking in it. A second later, I realized that the wet-and-nasty was what was left of Molly—this realization aided by the presence of wads of wiry gray hair all over the place (Molly went to the vet’s once, and the vet’s assistant, passing the door of the exam room, paused and said sympathetically, “Oh—a bad hair day every day, huh?”). The dogs and I were nonplused.

Went and summoned Doug and Sam, with shovels, and we held a hasty reprise of the funeral, this one much less ceremonious, ending in the placement of a chunk of old swimming pool fence over the site to prevent further desecration. Our best guess was that coyotes had dug up and half-devoured the remains—which was rather a sobering thought, as the entire yard is surrounded by a six-foot concrete block and stucco wall. I knew coyotes could jump, but…

Well, no one in the family is what you’d call squeamish, so we repaired inside for a post-Thanksgiving supper of pancakes and turkey with butter and maple syrup (pancakes being Doug’s piece de resistance, and very tasty they are, too). Tidied up, read a bit while Doug watched football, tucked him in, and prepared to go lie down for a quick evening nap before starting work. Took Otis and Charlie out for a potty-break.

Once again, they shot for the Back Forty, barking their heads off. Followed them at a dead run (in my red flannel pajamas and Uggs, mini-flashlight in hand). Luckily, there was nothing in the yard—but there was what sounded like a sizable pack of coyotes directly on the other side of the back wall (there’s a narrow service alley back there, between us and the neighbors on that side), yipping, gibbering and laughing their heads off. Not what you want to hear at 10 o’clock of a dark night, with sex-drunk owls hooting to and fro overhead, a desecrated grave full of ghastly remains at your feet, a pug Who Knows No Fear (Otis being certifiably insane; he’s the sort who loves to hop up and down, frothing at the mouth and calling big dogs bad names in public, secure in the knowledge that he’s on a leash) shrieking abuse at them from close range, a corgi also shaped like a coyote snack also barking, but from a slightly more prudent distance (Charlie’s bred for a cow-dog and thus possessed of common sense)—and the certain knowledge that those gibbering maniacs can indeed get over that wall if they want to.

After a certain amount of yelling and flashlight brandishing—and running down Otis the Fathead and snaffling him by the collar—we repaired inside, locked the panel over the dog-door (hey, if they’re going to come pillage the family cemetery, what’s to stop them coming right on in after the dog food?), lay down, and passed out. Temporarily.

The phone rings, waking me out of a sound sleep, so I’m more than slightly confused to hear my younger daughter telling me that her friend (visiting from New York) is in terrible pain, and they think she needs to go to the hospital, but she (the friend) won’t go without me. (Longtime childhood friend of Jenny’s, deplorably estranged from her parents for years. I’m sort of a surrogate mother.)

Shaking my head in hopes of clearing my wits enough to drive, I go wake Doug to tell him where I’m going and assure him that he doesn’t need to come with me, get dressed, stuff a cold-pak from the freezer and a bottle of ibuprofen into my purse, and go—pausing on my way out to grab the folder containing Sam’s manuscript (I’ve been in emergency rooms before. No matter what the situation, you’re probably going to want something to read).

Arrive to find the poor girl writhing in pain, unable to find a comfortable position that will ease it, terrible pain from the middle of her back down her right arm, pins-and-needles…Jenny and another friend had taken her to an urgent care facility earlier in the day, where they diagnosed the problem as muscle spasm/possible pinched nerve, and prescribed her a painkiller. Painkiller is obviously not working, and now it’s 11 PM. Tried a little trigger-point massage, just in case—it helped slightly, but pain resumed full-force as soon as I stopped, and when we asked if she thought she needed to go to the emergency room, she said she did.

So the four of us—C. (the injured friend) lying on a seat, writhing and emitting small, pitiful cries, Jenny, self, and other friend taking it in turns to rub her neck or her arm or chafe her hands for distraction—spent an hour in the lobby (luckily, it wasn’t a busy night), chatting and making remarks under our breaths about the other people in the waiting room, who were the usual motley crew one sees in an emergency room on a Saturday night, including a young man who looked as though he’d been living in a dumpster with an ice-bag on his head (that is, he had the ice-bag on his head in the waiting room, not in the dumpster), accompanied by his much spiffier girl-friend, a buxom specimen with drug-googly eyes and a large coat on which was painted in big red and green letters, “Kill the Brain and the Whole Ghoul Dies”. Not that we looked that great, all things considered, but still.

Four hours later, staggered (literally; C. had been given Valium, a shot of muscle relaxant and some Very Potent painkiller—sufficiently potent that she couldn’t keep it down, and barfed twice getting from the emergency room to the car—a distance of about a hundred feet) out of the hospital, drove the girls to Jenny’s place, and made my way home—just in time to take Otis and Charlie out again. This time, I took them into the inner yard, and they accomplished their business at 4 AM by the peaceful glow of Christmas lights, the night now silent save for the soft Hoo! Hoo-hoo! (male owls hoot once, females twice) of love in the trees.

And I hope all y’all had a lovely weekend, too! [g]

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39 Responses »

  1. I just got back from visiting a friend in Phoenix on Saturday! It was my first time being in a desert and I found it fascinating! We visited the Desert Botanical Gardens in Tucson, so reading your blog was a trip down memory lane for me! Normally, I’m an ocean/water girl (being from Vancouver) but I really enjoyed seeing an area that was so very different from my own. We also went to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix (near Camelback Mtn). They have so many varieties of cacti and succulents that my camera was working overtime! I had to take a ton of pictures so that my husband could identify the plants for me when I got home, and sure enough…he did! Hmmn…1100 pictures in a week and a half…is that enough?

    Thanks for sharing your holiday experience with us. No wonder you’re an author, you experience SO much life that you have to write about it and keep us all entertained! Thanks!

  2. Dear Diana,

    Oh my,
    What an unforgettable Thanksgiving.

    The following week after we had made the deal about our current house, this ‘peaceful’ and ‘cosy’ neighbourhood hit the tabloids twice:
    - a farmer had buried a pig on his yard (for a reason unknown) and a bear had been visiting the site
    - the neighbour house had a visit of a raccoon dog, which promptly hid itself under the bed in the master bedroom. Had to removed by a specialist.

    Luckily, in these following 20+ years there hasn’t happend anything similar (knocking the wood).

  3. When you dig my grave, dig it wide and DEEP.

    Sounds like the suburban hunters are not keeping up on coyote control. Coyotes can easily jump a six foot wall, especially for a putrified meal. On the canine menu, everything gets better when its buried.

    Deviled Eggs – the best use of paprika yet invented.

  4. Dear Farmer Bob–

    Actually, it _was_ pretty deep–she was three feet down. No idea how many coyotes there were; at least two (at a time), since the dirt was flung out on either end of the grave.

  5. Dear Jari–

    [g] Sounds like a great neighborhood! Where do you live, that you have bears and raccoon dogs?

  6. Jari–

    Oh, wait–I was forgetting. I _know_ where you live. [g] I actually ate bear (and moose and reindeer) when I was in Finland.

  7. Our first house (purchased in 1999) was new-construction built on former cotton fields. Although we were near a "major intersection" in what was still a semi-rural part of the county, we saw a wild turkey, hoot owl, coyote, a groundhog, and quite a few rabbits in the first year alone. When we moved 8 years later, the area was considerably more developed & only the rabbits & birds were left.

    Our current house is 42 years old in a well-established neighborhood. We are walking distance from a mall, and we can hear both I-40 and the train yard from our house. However, the development was once the suburbs of the Lttle Rock metro area, and there are 6 man-made lakes of different sizes in our property-owners' area. I was reminded of this last year when a dead raccoon showed up at the top of our driveway, right at the corner of our house. Animal control came & picked it up, but it was still surprising to see it. There are rabbits that live under our neighbor's storage shed, plus plenty of birds & squirrels due to the numerous old oak trees in our yard.

    But by far my most surreal wildlife siting had to have been when I was in college in Beaumont, TX. I was leaving a club about 1 AM (and no, I was not drunk), when an armadillo crossed College, Ave. in front of my car. It was a four lane highway, major road & very close to where College ran underneath I-10. I tend to think of armadillos as being more for less populated areas, so to see one in an obviously urban environment was just plain weird. Nevermind the fact that it was Texas.

  8. By DEEP, I mean 6 feet, the “traditional” depth for burial. That’s why it’s traditional, 6 feet of earth is sufficient to reduce the fresh scent of death and to deter casual burrowers. Otherwise you need a barrier like concrete or big rocks to deter the opportunistic digger. You could seal the remains, like the hermetically-sealed mayonaise jar on Funk and Wagnall’s back porch, but I have never found a seal effective against the power of dog noses. There are many effective against their attention spans, and, living in the Granite State, I find big rocks most expedient, but the desert presents special problems, so perhaps your pool fence will work with the remaining remains.

  9. Diana, you seem to have a very busy time of things. :) Hope your daughter’s friend is better.

    I love your description of coyotes, we have open space behind our house and we hear them often. It is one of the most eerie sounds I have ever heard. I always think of banshies or ghosts when I hear them gathering in the hills.

  10. After reading that all I could think was, “You have roses?!” :)
    It was 40 degrees here and the worst that happened was that the mushroom gravy didn’t thicken. Oh, tragedy!

    I have a dog nephew pug named Otis. Yes, he thinks he’s quite tough too when fenced safely in.

    It might sound odd, but you can cremate your pets. My sis has two little urns for two of her beloved dogs. No coyote worries either.

  11. No wonder you have such fabulous stories to tell, if that is real life!

  12. Wow! What an amazing story! Now I know YOU ARE CLAIRE!
    I’m sorry about Molly. My 13 year old cat just died in August and I know what a hole it leaves.
    The museum in Tuscan sounds fascinating. Thanks for that bit of knowledge. Must go visit.

  13. I’m thinking it’s a good thing I get my dogs cremated. What a day!

  14. I’m thinking it’s a good thing I get my dogs cremated. What a day!

  15. Dear Diana,
    Being a newly Christened Addict, (Book 1 Started Oct 3, 2008. Book 6 Finished November 11th, 2008. Private Matter, and Brotherhood-both finished by November 21) I offer my Thanksgiving To You for the Outlander series.

    (Now I am devouring Elizabeth von Arnim’s writings as I learn patience waiting for more from you.)

    (Do I just sit around and read? No. Having eight amazing children, I am a professional mother, and having a job, and having an A personality husband–I only wish I could just sit around and read.)

    I also find fun in your blog.

    Have you ever scanned your blog posts noticing the time of day you write ?
    Merry Christmas, Denece

  16. Dear Denece–

    No, I know mostly when I write. <g>

    My primary work time is late at night; I normally "go down" for the night around 4 AM, so am inclined to post things then (I'll often start a blog or website post in an earlier work session during the day, but switch back and forth between nonfiction and fiction, so to speak, so that I end up at the end of the night shift with my (usual) quote of 1500 words or so of book, plus the finished and proofread post. Gives me a sense of accomplishment to go to bed on. <g>

  17. That was fantastic, Diana. I loved reading it and was laughing out loud several times – Doug’s mom – ROFL!!!! Your turkey stuffing and gravy sound wonderful – one day I must try it. Oh – the owls – hahahahaha.


  18. After reading your gravy recipe on you web site, I think you appreciate how my father-in-law makes “red eye” gravy. (Around here that is any gravy made with meat drippings and milk). First, remove the meat. Mix the flour right into the grease in the pan. Now add milk. If it is thin, add more flour. Too thick, add more milk. Keep it up until you reach the top of the pan!! VBG
    It’s really pretty good gravy too! LOL
    Alice In Indiana

  19. It’s a bit unfair for someone of your obvious writing talent to also have such skill with cooking! Someone or something in the cosmos must like you! :)

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