For Thanksgiving, back when I was a sophomore in college, my mother cooked a turkey. She put stuffing, olives, greens, and a bunch of other sides into little bowls, and drove nine hours north from our home in New London, Conn., to see me. I went to college at McGill University in Montreal, and Canada’s Thanksgiving fell on a different date. My mother didn’t want me to be alone on the big family holiday of my native country.
When she arrived at my dorm room at around 7 p.m., she was in tears. The Canadians had confiscated her turkey at the border. So instead, we bought a roasted chicken from the local supermarket. Later that evening, a bunch of us sat around eating it with her sides, still in their bowls, on a makeshift table we made from desks found in the common area.
We took turns pretending to be border guards chowing down on her turkey in a secret investigation room: “Ma’am, I’ll have to take that succulent looking bird from you;” “Ma’am, please pass the gravy.” My mom pretended to be angry as she worked to hold back her laughter. At the time, it didn’t strike me as particularly significant that my mother drove all that way, alone. I was happy she was there but, by the end of the weekend, her doting was wearing on me. After a few too many rounds of me assuring her I was “truly” happy, I was relieved to see her go.
Five years later, she died from a rare heart condition on Thanksgiving. She had joked about dying for so long it seemed impossible that, this time, she’d make good on the old, familiar threat, “You’ll miss me when I’m dead.” And she was right, of course. The loss has become a part of my body.
My parents’ marriage ended when I was 3. Throughout their divorce, they relentlessly fought over who would get the kids on Thanksgiving. I suppose that dying on the day was my mom’s last act of defiance in this conflict, asserting a claim to the holiday that would last until the end of time. It’s a shame, too, because my mother was a terrible cook.
My stepmother, by contrast, was and is the best cook I know. And yet, every bite of her delicious food simply made me miss my mother more. Once she was gone, the company of other people at Thanksgiving — even my own family — made me feel even lonelier than if I had spent the day by myself. For years, I’d leave the table early, disappearing into the dirty dishes, a task that would give me a few hours of respite.
My father and my stepmother have a tradition of printing up silly T-shirts and outfitting their giant, blended family for significant events: “Solomon Family Vacation 2010, Fun in the Sun!” or “Happy 75th birthday Sally, Keep on Rockin’!” For years, as late fall approached, I’ve wanted to make myself a t-shirt that read, “Happy Thanksgiving, My Mother is Dead!”
Four years ago, however, I passed a milestone: I’d had more Thanksgivings without her than with her. And that same year, I met someone and found myself in a “geriatric pregnancy” at 42. It’s as if the ghost of my mother acknowledged that I’d served my time and pushed me to move on.
I’ve spent the last few years trying to remember the details of that Thanksgiving with my mom in Montreal — what car she drove, what she she wore, whether or not she’d slept well on the single bed in my dorm room. I find myself filling in details I couldn’t possibly have known: how many times she had to walk up and down the stairs to load the car; what radio station she listened to along the way; where she stopped for a break.
These days, in those rare moments when I don’t have clean something or make a snack for 4-year-old, Griffin, I think about how it’s true that you only come to appreciate everything your parents did (or didn’t) do for you when you have a child yourself. All that “stuff” that takes so much more work than you’d ever imagined: the car seats, the lugging, the hauling, the folding, the follow-through. There are outs at every turn. It’s so easy to take them; so much harder not to.
Over the years, the intensity of my grief has morphed into a low level anxiety at the very first hint of fall. But this year, the truth is, I can’t deny that I’m also a little excited for my sweet, good-natured little boy to play with his cousins, “help” his Grandma Sally cook, and lick the frosting off all the desserts, because I can already see how much he loves all of those things. I’m ready to join the group of adults who yell at the kids when mayhem breaks out, and to accompany my dad on a post-meal walk.
I often think about my mother and wonder how tired, or even sick, she was, driving all that way alone. But really, it was long before that Thanksgiving Day that my mother demonstrated that showing up was what really mattered: the musicals, track meets, concerts, half-time marching band shows, camp visiting days, train stations, airports. I’m so grateful she never turned back.
So, this year, on Thanksgiving, I will wake up at the crack of dawn to pack the car for the traffic-choked drive from New York City to West Hartford, Conn. I’ll stuff the scarves and jackets and stroller in the trunk while my partner will pack the dog’s necessities. We’ll try to keep Griffin asleep as we move him from his warm bed to the car seat. But when he inevitably wakes up, mid-transfer, I’ll quietly tell him to go back to sleep. We have a long drive ahead of us.