Since I stopped believing in Santa Claus, and certainly throughout my adulthood, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday.
And while I’ve had several memorable Thanksgiving Days, there are two I’ll never forget, including one I’ve written about before — the first one our family spent without my father.
Both my parents had been ill and hospitalized in 1978. Daddy died that June, just after Father’s Day. Even though we didn’t want my mother to bother trying to fix Thanksgiving dinner that year, she insisted on doing what she had done for more than 50 years.
When I dropped by the Wednesday night before, she was busy preparing the pies and cakes, including stirring up her homemade icings. It was a painful chore for her that evening, just as it was the next day as I watched her finish seasoning the turkey and struggle to lift it into the oven.
It occurred to me that I might be watching Mama cook her last Thanksgiving meal.
That turned out to be true. My mother died the following May, 11 months after my father’s death, and two weeks after Mother’s Day.
My other unforgettable Thanksgiving Day occurred in 1963, the week after President John F. Kennedy was killed.
My high school band at I.M. Terrell, Fort Worth’s oldest and largest black high school at the time, had been disappointed a couple of weeks earlier when our band director informed us that Dunbar’s band, not us, had been selected to play along the motorcade route when Kennedy came to town.
The director told us that the music coordinator for the school district had a conference call with the principals of the two schools and flipped a coin. Dunbar won. I don’t know if he made up that story to ease our deflated egos, but that was the story.
My fellow band members, while very disappointed, accepted what the music coordinator supposedly also said: that we often got the special treatment because of our size and our history. In 1961, for example, Terrell became the first black high school, along with Anderson High of Austin, to march in a Texas governor’s inauguration. That was the day that John Connally was sworn in.
Ironically, we got the news of the president’s death as we were practicing our halftime show for our homecoming game, played each year on Thanksgiving Day against cross-town rival Dunbar at a packed Farrington Field.
We had been practicing for two weeks on that routine because, for many who came to homecoming, halftime was just as exciting as the game.
That following Monday, the day of Kennedy’s funeral and burial, was a National Day of Mourning, so we did not have school that day. And when we returned Tuesday, our band director had changed the halftime routine, meaning we had only two days to prepare.
We were going to honor Kennedy, he said. Although we didn’t play for him that Friday morning, we were going to play for him on Thanksgiving Day.
I think it was the drum line that had the idea to incorporate the cadence the nation had been hearing during the ceremonial scenes from Washington as the president’s casket was transported on a horse-drawn caisson down Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s how we would enter and exit the field.
I don’t remember the music change, but it was a brassy fanfare — perhaps Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
But the major difference would come at the end. We normally ended halftime shows by forming a large “T” or the school’s full initials “IMT” and playing the school song. But that would not happen on this special day.
Instead of the “IMT,” our band formed “JFK,” and in that formation we marched off the field to that funereal cadence toward the stands.
As many of us cried, we could see tears streaming down the faces of the fans in the bleachers.