Thanksgiving was always a big holiday in my house growing up.
It wasn’t a big holiday for me. For me, Thanksgiving was the last big hurdle before Christmas. But for my mom, Thanksgiving held a special place in her heart. In fact, every one of my memories of Thanksgiving is centered on my mom.
Maybe it’s because we were a military family, and my mom cooked every single Thanksgiving dinner we had growing up, because we moved too much and lived too far from other family members for it to be any different. She would waken at 3 or 4 in the morning and begin by chopping the vegetables, preparing the turkey, and baking pies. My mom wasn’t ordinarily a morning person, but Thanksgiving was an important holiday for her.
Thanksgiving memories of my mom in the kitchen, rushing around like a mad woman … we’d be enlisted into polishing silver, cleaning china, pressing the table linens, or other prep work. But never the cooking. No, the cooking was her domain. All hers. My mom loved cooking, and she excelled at it. Everything I know about cooking today, I know because of her …
When I grew up and moved out, I never went back home for Thanksgiving. Perhaps that’s because my family had been irrevocably fractured by mental illness. You see, even though my mom worked oh-so-very hard to provide a good family experience for all of us, she could not mend the broken, tattered edges of her mind. And we could not mend the damage that her untreated and under-treated illness had caused to all of us.
And yet … and yet … and yet … traditions die hard. Memories of Thanksgiving held me firmly in their grasp. Though I was single, I felt the need to recreate the Thanksgivings my mother had once provided. I’d buy a turkey breast, some prepared sides, and I’d have myself a little solo celebration, all by myself.
My celebration expanded when I met the man who would later become my husband, and we became a feast of two. I began cooking everything myself, using both her recipes and recipes I found on my own. We married and added a child, then two, and finally three, but still, our Thanksgiving feast remained just our little family, no one else. We never invited anyone else, nor did we ever go anywhere else. It was only Thanksgiving, after all.
Then, one year, something changed. My grandmother would be in town. I only had one grandparent left. In a rush of – I don’t know what – I decided to invite her, and my parents, and (why not?) my sister and my niece to my home for Thanksgiving. I was more than qualified to cook for everyone. After all, I’d been preparing Thanksgiving dinners for at least 10 years at that point.
My mother had very recently been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome. That phone call had awakened something desperate in me. Though what little I could dredge up on the disease made it appear to not be too terribly serious (she had none of the risk factors making her prognosis poor), I had that feeling, that terrible sickening feeling that she would not survive it. Her mind had been weakening for some time, and we had long since made peace with what had been our unstable, sad past.
And maybe that was why. Memories of Thanksgivings-past haunted my preparations that day. I felt as if I was driven to create a perfect holiday. I decorated carefully and cooked everything myself, insisting that everyone else just simply come.
My mother didn’t, of course. Being the woman she was, and being the Queen of Thanksgiving, she simply had to bring something. She brought an entire turkey (yes, she did!), as well as several sides. But still, we had a lovely day. Everyone was happy. Everyone was peaceful. There was no bickering, no family quarrels, no snapping at anyone. None of the hurtful behaviors that had happened at family holidays in the past – nothing to make any of us regret that day.
That was the last Thanksgiving I ever spent with my mom. Six months later, on a family camping trip, I got the phone call that changed my life: my mother was dead.
Some Thanksgivings are happy, others are sad, and still others are simply celebrations of gratitude. Thanksgiving for me will always be a combination of the three. Thanksgiving is a holiday that will always be irrevocably bound with my mother’s memory. I still use some of her recipes. I will probably always cry over her on Thanksgiving. I will always miss her. Always.
And I will always be thankful that she was my mother.