The last Thanksgiving Mom hosted in her home was her best ever. She had hosted my family, and others, the previous fifteen Thanksgivings—all were very good. But her last Thanksgiving was really special.
To give you an idea of the effort Mom put into that Thanksgiving: she began by shopping all of the food and supplies on her own (which she paid for out of her pocket—same as every year). Mom had just turned 80 years old and shopping for her was not as easy as it used to be—especially shopping for a group—particularly now that she sometimes required hoses stuck up her nostrils and a portable oxygen tank strapped to her in order to breathe well. Perhaps the most difficult part of shopping that season for Mom was carrying all the stuff from her car into her house. She was already about wore out when she drove up to her home. Then she had to lift everything out of her trunk and haul it inside—put everything away in the cupboards, freezer and refrigerator.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Mom made the sweet potato casserole filling. She took her mixer out from the cupboard and mixed up some eggs, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, brown and white sugar; then she boiled the sweet potatoes and put it all away into her fridge.
Wednesday morning, she prepared the macaroni & cheese for cooking and put the dish in the fridge. In the afternoon, she went outside in her back garden and pulled fresh collards that she had planted in a bed up against her house. The greens have to be cut up after they’re pulled, and after the cutting was done, she put those away for cooking too. In the evening, she made two cakes—coconut and carrot. She also prepared the turkey. Boiled some red Irish potatoes. Then she made cornbread from scratch, rolled out dough for biscuits, sauteed some onions and celery, a little chicken broth, poultry seasoning, mixed it all together and the dressing (which was absolutely perfect) was refrigerated, with the turkey and the potatoes—ready for the oven next day.
Having her home tidy for her guests was important to Mom, so out came the vacuum cleaner and duster and the cleaning commenced.
At 3:00 am on Thursday morning, Thanksgiving Day, Mom got out of bed and put the turkey in the oven. She baked a ham. Cooked the field peas in a large pot on her stove. Ditto the lima beans. She made the sweet potato casserole topping (walnuts, flour, brown sugar, eggs and milk) and mixed it with the filling she had prepared on Tuesday and set it aside for baking later. She pulled those red Irish potatoes she had boiled on Wednesday out of the fridge and cut them in wedges, added oil, seasoned them with seasoning salt and lemon pepper and put them and the sweet potato casserole for baking in the oven—along with the macaroni & cheese and the dressing. She rolled out the dough for the dumplings, added chicken and egg, and placed them in a pot to cook on the stove. She made the gravy. Then the rice. She crushed cranberries and made her cranberry sauce from scratch. Her pitcher of lemonade came from freshly squeezed lemons. And her famous sweet tea was standing by as always.
When I arrived from Charlotte, Mom was at her stove frying chicken legs and chicken tenders for the kids. I kissed her and said, “I just heard on the car radio that the average Thanksgiving dinner costs $50.” She laughed.
Mom put all her cooking on low, and while Wayne III stayed behind to man the fort, Mom and I drove over to pick up her sister, my Aunt Nell, and bring her to Mom’s for Thanksgiving and a weekend stay-over. After Mom checked Aunt Nell out at the front desk, we loaded Aunt Nell’s wheelchair into the trunk of the car, and headed back to Mom’s. Wayne III and I carried Aunt Nell inside. Soon thereafter Sandra, my sister, and Mitch, her husband, arrived with Mary, one of Mom’s friends.
We prayed then ate.
Aunt Nell, who normally had the appetite of a small bird, piled her plate pretty high and topped it off with the largest turkey leg available in South Carolina, or at least in Cayce/West Columbia. At first I thought it was a gag. I wondered how she would summon the strength to lift the thing off her plate up to her mouth. With no little effort, she raised the great leg from her plate, slowly, her hand wavering, clutching the giant drumstick, up to her mouth, finally, and took a tiny bite. “Aunt Nell will never finish that,” I whispered to Mom in the kitchen.
We ate and drank and talked. Finished the main course a little too stuffed as usual. Among scattered groans, the desserts were introduced and coffee served. More eating, drinking, and talking. Wayne III excused himself from the table. The rest of us, too full for further sitting, contemplated the nap portion of the holiday. Aunt Nell, however, was still gnawing on that turkey leg. She just wasn’t going to let go of it. She gnawed and gnawed on that thing until there was pretty much nothing left but the bone—bless her heart.
One annoying thing about Mom’s Thanksgiving is that she believed the cleaning should begin immediately after the meal. That’s a violation of tradition right there. Everyone knows the after-dinner nap must ensue after the food has been consumed—I’m pretty sure the American Medical Association advises that too. Not Mom. She never understood that essential element of the holiday.
While Mom and Sandra made cleaning noises in the kitchen, I slipped away from the dining room, and heading toward the back of the house where the cozy bedroom of my boyhood was waiting for me, I found Wayne III already sprawled on the bed. Happy Thanksgiving indeed. I had to take a less comfortable bed across the hallway. Moments later, eyes closed, I let myself contemplate sleep. I didn’t feel too terribly bad leaving the family and Mom’s guest to their own hunt for a place to enjoy their holiday snooze. I presumed that was why Mitch took Mary home shortly after dinner: There was no bedroom available for her, or a suitable place to rest her head without feeling a bit socially uncomfortable. It’s bad form to nap at your host’s Thanksgiving if the host is not napping. Just because Mom was going to break with tradition, Why should Mary be forced to violate the sacred Thanksgiving Day nap—even if she had to return to her own home to honor it.
Lying there on Mom’s bed, visions of colorful autumn leaves cascading from trees played in my resting mind. There’s no place like Carolina in the Fall. Just beautiful.
Enter an awful memory: I had told Mom earlier I would get the fallen leaves up off her lawn. She isn’t able to garden like she used to and it bothers her when her yard is not kept up. “Really, Wayne?” she had responded to my promise in a tone of sincere appreciation. I acted rash when I promised that to Mom. I could see that now. But wait. Was it really a promise? I mean, technically. The more I reflected on it the less I was sure. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that it was actually less of a promise and more like . . . a hopeful offer. Plus, I hadn’t calculated the power of the Thanksgiving Day nap when I told her that. I overlooked that vital part of the equation. I’ll get up in a minute or two. A little nap and I’ll be ready for those leaves. Besides, if my nap gets carried away, I can return Sunday and get those leaves done. Mom will understand. Just a little sleep.
A few minutes later the door opened softly. Mom entered the room where I was drifting toward dreamland. She needed to get something for my Aunt Nell. Having Aunt Nell stay over for a couple or three days required a lot of effort from Mom. She had to tend to her needs—make sure Aunt Nell took her medication at the scheduled time. Prepare her meals. Lift her into the shower and bathe her. Put her clothes on for her. Change her when needed. It was a lot like taking care of a baby. I love Aunt Nell and she loves to stay over at Mom’s but I didn’t think the timing was good at Thanksgiving because Mom expends so much energy for the holiday. I guess Mom didn’t see it that way.
Mom was quiet when she came into the room— careful not to disturb me. I didn’t move—hoping she wouldn’t see that I was awake. She was gone without a word in less than a minute. That’s Mom. Even when I was a kid she was careful about making noise when others were resting or asleep. She just wasn’t one to come busting into my bedroom either. She always knocked on the door—softly. Mom is the most considerate person of others that way of whom I’ve ever known. Relieved that she had left, I laid there thinking about all the effort Mom had put into Thanksgiving and the effort that lay ahead for her with Aunt Nell.
I reasoned, if Mom, at 80 years old, with all the aches and pains in her knees and legs, and the hassle of her dependency on portable oxygen, can organize and create and provide all of the energy and resources for this wonderful Thanksgiving and also manage Aunt Nell for a few days, then the least I ought to be able to do, is get my sorry butt off the bed and get those leaves up. At least I had the pleasure of waking Wayne III to help. After we gathered up the leaves and were preparing to depart for Charlotte, Mom sent us home with bags of containers full of food and other good stuff. It had been a great Thanksgiving. I remember thinking: What will we ever do if there should come a time when we can no longer experience Thanksgiving Day at Mom’s?