Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his world rejoices;
Who from our mother's arms
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours to-day.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Untarnished by the commercial greed and cartoonish symbolism that has infected the great holidays of the Christian tradition, Thanksgiving is our purest celebration. It is a day for families, when we gather together before a great feast to offer thanks for our good fortune, for the wondrous things the Almighty has done. On a day such as this, centered on the family, is it any surprise that the very first blessing mentioned by the hymnist is the gift of love that a mother bestows on her child?
As I reflect on the Thanksgivings of my youth, I am amazed at the feasts my mother prepared. Preparations began several days before the actual holiday. Mom would start rolling homemade pie crusts early in the week. Around Tuesday, the first batch of cornbread would come out of the oven, and it would stand uncovered in a corner of the kitchen to be used later for the turkey dressing (where I grew up, it was always cornbread dressing, and it was always referred to as “dressing”, not “stuffing”). The turkey itself would go into the oven Wednesday evening, and it would slowly bake overnight on a low temperature, often in a sweet marinade made of Coke or Dr. Pepper. Thanksgiving morning was a flurry of activity in the kitchen, as Mom busily finished the pies with the filling of our choice. Usually, that meant one apple pie and one pecan pie, although pumpkin and chocolate sometimes topped the holiday request list. The last stage was the preparation of the side dishes – turkey dressing, candied sweet potatoes, corn pudding, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and homemade cornbread prepared in a pie pan.
Surely one of the main reasons Thanksgiving is so special to me is because those meals my mother prepared reflected the pure, uncompromised love she had for her husband and children. So it was that much more heartbreaking when I came home for Thanksgiving my junior year in college, and mom failed to greet me at the door. Something was terribly wrong. My father was slow to get up from his chair in the den, and by the time he uttered his first, subdued greeting, I already knew what it was. The cancer had returned. Mom was lying in bed, having just undergone her first chemotherapy treatment, beginning an 18 month ordeal to see if the cancer cells could be killed before they killed their host. It was a contest my mother would lose.
The first Thanksgiving of my mother’s illness was a subdued affair, nothing like the festive holidays that preceded it. During the next 12 months I watched my mom’s slow and painful decline. The house in which I grew up and which had such bright, happy memories became dominated by the pall of impending death. I sought out excuses to stay away, since home held so little joy. So it was the second Thanksgiving of my mother’s illness, the one that would be her last. When my best friend from college suggested getting a group together to camp out in the desert mountains of West Texas, I jumped at the opportunity.
Sometimes I look back on that Thanksgiving with regret. It was my mother’s last Thanksgiving, and I was hundreds of miles away. Still, despite the physical distance, she was there with me. The first night of our campout, when our other companions were fast asleep in their warm sleeping bags, my friend and I stayed up late to engage in the kind of conversation only the best of friends can have. We talked about the beauty of our surroundings. We were amazed at the brightness of the stars, the clarity of the Milky Way, and how the rocky face of the mountains reflected the soft moonlight. We saw a shooting star that almost flashed across the entire breadth of the nighttime sky. Eventually our conversation took a more pensive turn, and we began to talk about my mother. I wept quietly as I reflected on her suffering and her inevitable death. My friend spoke of her kindness, and how she gladly welcomed him and all my friends into the warmth of her home. No longer reflecting on the pale pallor of one dying, we spoke of the bright smile of the living woman we would always remember, the lasting light of one who had lived a life full of accomplishment and love. We continued into the wee morning hours, and often our conversation was punctured by long, silent interludes that were as full of meaning as anything spoken out loud.
My mother passed away five months later. One morning the following summer I received a letter from my friend. Inside the envelope was a very brief note, and on a separate piece of paper was a short poem he had written soon after our Thanksgiving campout. Tears rushed down my face as I read it, just like they do now, thirty years later.
We breathe out the spreading smoke
That rises with our words into the night
And goes dark against the sky
Beyond the touch of firelight.
Above the pines a meteor falls,
A message from the gods that burns
And scatters, nothing left, the heavens
Blank, as the earth begins to turn
Us from the streak of gold gone black.
Our tobacco smolders dark, and words
Die out. We wrap ourselves for sleep
And hear the call of night-birds,
Recall the dullness of your mother’s eyes,
Her talk of wings. We shiver. A bird flies.