For Thanksgiving, my mother would buy a huge turkey, one barely able to fit into the big roasting pan and then squeezed into the oven. She’d set the alarm for the ungodly hour of 3AM to start her preparations for the big day: homemade stuff from scratch, her special cloverleaf rolls, and, of course, the star of the show, the turkey. She was proud of her homemade stuffing and rightly so, to be truthful. She used slightly stale bread as the base, melted butter and I don’t even remember what else, but it smelled so good when she was making it that I’d wake up from a sound sleep.
She’d stuff the turkey, then put it in the oven to slowly bake for hours. By about the three hour mark, the whole house smelled like buttered turkey and it was torture waiting for that bird to finish cooking. An hour before the turkey was ready, she’d make the cloverleaf rolls, carefully rolling one-inch balls, three to make a roll, all of them set into the greased muffin tins. The turkey came out of the oven to cool down and the rolls went in, adding their own yeasty goodness to the delicious smells wafting out of the kitchen.
After my parents moved to a retirement community, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner turned into them hosting us at the communal dining room. It was pretty upscale, with waiters and an amazing buffet table and even an ice sculpture. They paid for our meals ahead of time, and reserved a table big enough to seat all who could make it on the big day. Although she’d given up cooking, my mother still wanted to host Thanksgiving. I think she just really enjoyed seeing all of us gathered around the table.
A few years after she retired, Mom got sick and ended up in the hospital that fall. After some ups and downs, she had finally gotten well enough to move to a rehab unit. She wouldn’t be strong enough to get home by Thanksgiving. Or so everyone thought.
I’d been down there taking care of her, working my job remotely while I talked to doctors and therapists and kept track of the myriad details involved in the care of an elderly parent. I’d gotten her settled into the rehab unit, made sure she was comfortable, and then drove the eight hours back to Santa Cruz on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, sliding home ahead of the holiday traffic. Or so I thought.
On Wednesday morning while I was walking on the beach, Mom called me in tears. “I don’t want to be here. I want to be home for Thanksgiving. Come get me, please. I want to spend Thanksgiving with my family.”
There was no arguing with that. I threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed my laptop, wallet and keys, gassed up the car, and drove 500 miles in day-before-Thanksgiving traffic back to the rehab hospital. Mom was painfully thin and frail, but she was determined to go home. I got her into the car and then she helped me pick the best back roads to avoid the holiday traffic. (It helped that she had worked in Riverside for years and knew a dozen ways to get home; I think we used most of them that night.) I got her up to their fourth-floor apartment and made sure she was settled in bed before I left to check into my hotel room down the street and collapse from exhaustion.
The next day, my mother had the Thanksgiving dinner she had wanted so much. She had washed her hair, put on her makeup, and wore her favorite soft pink blazer and black pants. I still remember how her face glowed, sitting at that table with family around her. It was a very good day.
I didn’t know it then, but that was her last Thanksgiving. I wish I’d remembered to take a picture.
Be present in all things and thankful for all things.