You know Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, Mom. The gold and orange colors of autumn dominating the landscape’s palette, the brisk New England air and the rich aromas in the kitchen. Thanksgiving was the first family holiday that you ceded to me to prepare – even before I was married and with my own family, I volunteered to host the holiday one year and you enthusiastically agreed. That began a tradition lasting decades.
You know how I have always obsessed in the weeks leading up to the holiday with planning the menu, selecting my table settings and scheduling out my preparations. You were always part of it, Mom.
In the early years, you and Dad would come to the house on Thanksgiving morning carrying a large shopping bag. The contents were reliable as clockwork: the morning’s Boston Globe, a box of chocolates, a bag of freshly roasted mixed nuts and a bouquet of flowers. Dad would plant himself on the living room couch and attack the Globe while you and your grandson would keep tabs on the Macy’s Parade on TV while sitting at the kitchen island.
Then the best part of the morning would begin. You would take up your customary practice of serving as my official taste tester as I put the finishing touches on the cooking. You relished this role like none other, never hesitating to say “just a pinch more” when something was needed. You always took such pride in my cooking, Mom – loving all the traditional dishes that stemmed from family recipes, and taking delight in my new additions. You’d call out to Dad, warning that he was in for a feast.
One last time with Dad
Thanksgiving 2012 was a memorable one, Mom. Dad had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two and a half years earlier, and we were reasonably certain that this would be his last Thanksgiving with us. We arranged for an ambulance service to carry both you and Dad into the house as neither of you could manage the stairs. Although Dad found all that fuss distasteful, he swallowed his pride—he was grateful to be together for the holiday.
You took your place at the center island and we spent a bittersweet day together. At dinner, as we went around the table each expressing what we were thankful for, our hearts were heavy but full of love.
When my husband’s turn came, he made an unexpected announcement.
“This will be our last Thanksgiving at this table. Beginning next year, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving at the Cape house. That will begin a new tradition.” Dad smiled knowingly and nodded his head in agreement. Dad then declared, equally unexpectedly, that he’d like us to take you and him to the Cape house the very next day to spend the weekend there together.
An impromptu trip to Cape Cod was no easy feat given how weak Dad was, but we were delighted to rise to the challenge. It would be Dad’s last visit there and we worked hard to make him as comfortable as possible. We warmed the bed with the electric blanket before he got in it, fixed him homemade chicken soup and countless cups of tea, and made small portions of his favorite foods – even knowing he would only take a bite at best. Most significantly, we offered lots of gentle hugs and no words were left unspoken. You and I exchanged a lot of meaningful looks that weekend, our eyes expressing the knowledge that life was about to change. Dad passed away eight weeks later.
A new chapter
We had three more Thanksgivings with you, Mom. Now you’d spend a four-day weekend with us at the Cape house; you looked forward to it as though it were a trip to Paris. By mid-October you began making your preparations: planning what to pack, gathering all your medical supplies, notifying your home care team that you’d be away. Discussing your plans with your friends so they wouldn’t worry. Mom, you loved every minute of this anticipation and I was only worried that I would disappoint you.
Thanksgiving 2015 was just the four of us, an intimate gathering. You and your now 6’2” grandson watched the Macy’s parade, and the traditional food tasting took place. You required quite a bit of care that year—in addition to the usual help with personal care, medications and mobility, I needed to attend to your multiple leg wounds, cleaning the areas and changing your dressings twice daily.
Each evening at bedtime, I puffed your bed pillows, set the TV timer just as you wanted, and tucked you in with prolonged hugs and kisses. Perhaps most significantly, we shared our reflections on the day. I listened as you oozed with pride about your grandson, praised the virtues of your son-in-law, and raved about the meals of the day. You looked so content, Mom, to be with us and be at the center of our attention. I was exhausted at the end of each day, but my heart was so full knowing how much it meant to all of us to be sharing these moments together.
We brought you back to your assisted living home that Sunday, and on Wednesday morning you took us by surprise, leaving this world while napping in your recliner. No trauma; it was peaceful and exactly as you hoped it would be when your time came.
Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, Mom, but now the weeks leading up to it are filled with a different kind of anticipation. We haven’t quite found a “new normal” without you and Dad with us – the memories pull hard at our heartstrings, and although those reflections are important and inescapable, I also seek to be present, in the moment. When I look back on those final years with you and Dad what I remember are not the challenges, but rather the love we felt, and the amazing gratification of helping make your last Thanksgivings special.
Today, Thanksgiving Day, I will taste each dish as I complete the cooking, assess whether another pinch of something is needed, and I will feel you by my side. The Macy’s parade will be on in the background, and somehow the flowers, chocolates, nuts and newspaper will show up.
I won’t remember every little thing you said or did on Thanksgiving, Mom. But I know that I will never forget the love that you made me feel.