Everything had to be perfect. The house had to be spotless, with no clutter. “Everything in its place and a place for everything,” her mother told her countless times as she was growing up.
The dinner had to be cooked just as her mother herself had cooked the same meal so many times: The stuffing a perfect blend of spices and, like the turkey, neither too dry nor too moist. The occasion called for the traditional dishes, including candied yams, mashed potatoes and gravy, and the special baked corn dish that her mother prepared every year without fail. The family recipe, detailed on a stained and crinkled index card, was there in the recipe box. She immediately recognized her mother’s handwriting, although she was struck by how strong and sure the letters looked. For several moments, she held the card, stroking the ink marks left upon it so many years ago. She felt tears welling up in her eyes and realized she had better get busy if she were going to have everything ready on time.
The hours seemed to fly by as she carefully prepared each dish. When she finally had everything in the oven or simmering on the stove, she sat down to rest for a few moments and found herself staring at the glass-fronted cabinet. Behind those panes of clear glass, her mother’s China, glassware, and serving dishes neatly lined the shelves in precisely the spots where her mother had replaced them after the last time she herself had prepared a meal in this very kitchen in this very house.
As she carefully carried the dishes to the dining room table, she remembered the last time they had all gathered around that table to share a Thanksgiving feast. Had it really been twelve years ago? Was that possible? She sat down in the chair at the head of the table, gently running her hand over the slightly yellowed linen tablecloth, as she tried to remember . . .
Her father had still been alive, she was sure, because her mother had stopped preparing holiday meals after his death, announcing that it was just “too much for me at my age.” No one argued.
Instead, she and her siblings began taking turns hosting holiday celebrations in their homes. “It’s the cycle, the natural order,” she had reassured her mother one year as they drove to her brother’s house where his wife was busily preparing Easter dinner.
“I know,” her mother had responded resolutely, “but I wish I could still have all of you come home. I miss the way we all got together. And . . . ” She knew that, as her mother’s voice trailed off, she was thinking about their father, but would not speak about how lonely she was without him for fear of breaking down.
“Fifty years,” she heard herself say aloud as she realized that she was still idly stroking the tablecloth that she had retrieved that morning from her mother’s cedar chest. That tablecloth had graced the head table at her grandparents’ and parents’ modest wedding receptions, as well as those of her sisters, as well as the fiftieth wedding anniversary celebrations of her grandparents and, later, her parents.
“Fifty years,” she muttered again, as she thought about her parents, their long marriage, and all the milestones they had shared together. “How do people do it?” she wondered aloud.
As she finished setting the table, she thought about how much her mother would enjoy seeing the tablecloth on the dinner table on this special day and all the happy memories it would, hopefully, invoke.
She had just finished dressing and was putting the final touches on the meal when she heard the car drive up. She was suddenly anxious to see her mother’s joy as she entered her former home, filled with the aroma of a delicious Thanksgiving meal just like in so many years past. She wanted her mother to see the way she was lovingly caring for all of her mother’s things, not to mention the effort she had taken to set a lovely dinner table. She was so excited that she almost skipped to the entryway and flung open the front door, dashing down the steps to her brother’s car.
Her mother moved slowly these days and getting in and out of the car was difficult for her, but her brother was helping her while his wife stood ready with her mother’s walker. She reached the vehicle just as her mother was grasping the handles and beginning to ease carefully across the walkway.
“Mother! I’m so glad you’re here! Wait until you see the house!” she exclaimed as she gingerly hugged her mother’s frail, rounded shoulders. Unable to release her grip on the walker, her mother smiled and nodded happily before continuing to inch toward the first of the three steps leading up into the foyer.
“How was the drive? Did everything go all right?” she asked her brother.
Smiling uneasily, he replied, “Well, it was touch and go a couple of times. It was difficult getting her in and out of the car to use the restroom but we managed. Darlene, of course, had to help her because I couldn’t go into a public restroom with her.” She could see that her brother and sister-in-law were exhausted.
“Well, let’s get her inside and situated. Dinner is almost ready. You can relax with a nice glass of wine for a little while before I serve the meal,” she said, trying her best to make them feel welcome and put them at ease.
After they helped her mother navigate the steps, she guided her into the kitchen. “See, Mom? Just like you left it,” she offered eagerly. Again her mother smiled and nodded, saying nothing as she stood in the middle of the kitchen floor assessing every inch of the room. She gazed up at the clock hanging over the kitchen table as it chimed twice, seemingly mesmerized by the pendulum swinging from side to side. Her mother perused the cabinet that contained her best dishes, including the ones given to her by her own mother, as though peering longingly into a store window at treasures she had never seen before.
“Come on, Mom. Let’s go into the living room where you can get comfortable in your very own rocking chair while I put the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner.” She helped the elderly woman remove her sweater. Then she eased her into the same chair in which her mother had spent so many years watching television programs with her husband in the evenings after dinner while lovingly crocheting lap blankets for all of her family members and friends.
“She probably doesn’t want any wine,” she told her brother.
“No, she can’t drink alcohol because of all the medications she takes now,” he answered.
“Oh, of course not,” she said.
“Mom, how about a nice glass of iced tea with a little bit of lemon? Does that sound refreshing after the long drive back home?” she asked.
And then the moment she had been dreading arrived. The moment that she had prayed would never come. Not today. Not on this happy, thankful day and not in this house, of all places.
Although it had happened other times — the first was more than a year earlier when she had taken her mother grocery shopping — and in other settings, it was always a jolting, disappointing experience. Like being punched in the stomach. Each time it occurred, she was taken aback and left feeling as though she could not catch her breath for a few minutes.
But she had been sure that if they brought her mother home for this special day and celebrated Thanksgiving in this home where they had all shared so much love on so many such occasions for so many years, it would not happen today. They would beat the odds and this day would be — just this day — like all those other happy days that they had shared together here.
But it was not to be. Her world came crashing down around her and she was sadly forced to confront the fact that things would truly never be the same again. Not if they couldn’t even be the same in these familiar, comfortable, well-loved surroundings.
“Why yes, dear, some iced tea sounds wonderful. I am quite thirsty after riding in that nice man’s car,” her mother replied, nodding toward her son. He turned and slowly walked into the kitchen, shaking his head disappointedly.
“You have a lovely home here. I’m so glad that you invited me,” she continued. “I’ve never been here before, have I?”
“And tell me. Do we know each other? Have we met before? You look very familiar, but I’m having a hard time placing you. I apologize. I’m not very good with names any more.”