Thanksgiving Day brings joy and pain

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday because it has always meant "family" day -- historically void of the distractions and commercialization that long ago hijacked Christmas, Easter and other national observances.

It is a day when no one -- at least in my family -- feels obligated to spend money on anything other than food; there are no charades or fantasies about make-believe characters leaving gifts or colored eggs; no pressures except the ones on that special person in charge of cooking an entire meal that would feed dozens.

The fourth Thursday of November has forever been special to me, even that Thanksgiving of 1978, which was one of the more painful days of my life.

That year would be the first Thanksgiving that my father would not be seated at the head of the table in my parents' home, a place all of the siblings, grandchildren and extended family simply referred to as "the house." Usually on Sundays and any holiday, we made a stop by "the house," especially at dinner time.

Daddy had died in June, just after Father's Day, and I knew the upcoming Thanksgiving would take on new meaning for our entire family, but especially my mother, who had lost the man she had been married to for more than 50 years.

Both my parents had been in ill health that year, and both had been in the same hospital at the same time for a few weeks, my father battling cancer and Mama suffering with diabetes and a heart condition.

That Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, I dropped by the house and found my mother doing what she always did before the holiday: She was baking. Several pies had already been made, but she was working on her homemade icing for her chocolate and coconut cakes.

It was as she stirred the icing on the range, occasionally moving the sauce pan from the gas heat to keep the temperature even, that I first noticed her lack of strength. Just stirring and lifting that pan was a chore, and a bad knee caused more pain as she maneuvered from the stove to the sink to the kitchen table.

The next morning, I made it a point to arrive early, thinking she might need help -- not to cook, but perhaps to do some lifting -- yet I knew instinctively she would not hear of being helped in preparing a meal she had done for decades.

The turkey had been seasoned, and every burner on the stove had a pot or pan of boiling greens, potatoes and whatever else she was cooking as side dishes. I watched her finish hand-mixing the cornbread dressing, and then I gasped as she strained to lift the large pan with the turkey.

As I stood to try to grab the pan, she gave me a look that said, "I've got this. I'm going to do it, the way I always have."

After putting the turkey in the oven, she sat down at the end of the kitchen table, breathless, and I quickly walked toward the back door of the house for fear she might see water in my eyes.

By early afternoon, the house was full of people enjoying, as usual, Mama's home cooking. And when I think back, I don't recall ever seeing her take a bite that day.

It was that day I realized what I would later learn for sure, that I had watched my mother prepare her last Thanksgiving meal for the family she loved.

Mama died two weeks before Mother's Day in 1979, just 11 months after my father's death.

I miss them every day, but especially on Thanksgiving.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.


Twitter: @BobRaySanders