by Jean M. Heimann
It was Thanksgiving, 1997 – just four months after my father’s death. Mom was now living alone in a room by herself at the nursing home. She had been despondent after my dad’s death and we were all concerned about her.
For more than 50 years, mom and dad had spent every holiday together, with the exception of the first two years of their marriage. World War II had begun and dad enlisted in the U.S. Army where he was stationed in Northern Africa and Italy. When he returned home, he met his first born daughter, who was already eighteen months old.
My parents had four more children and made each Thanksgiving special for the family by both sharing in the preparation of the food. Dad was always up early in the morning, putting the turkey in the oven and preparing his “secret” dressing. Mom stayed up the entire night before making her delicious thick, deliciously rich lime Jell-O dessert (with pineapple, mini-marshmallows, real whipped cream, cool whip, mayonnaise, and walnuts), candied yams with brown sugar and marshmallows, homemade mashed potatoes, cranberries, pea and cheese salad, and deviled eggs. She also baked at least two pies – one pumpkin, and one cherry or apple. Dad buttered and heated up the rolls. Promptly, at 9am, we turned the TV on to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. At 11:00 a.m., we delivered meals to both our widowed French grandmas (who lived across the street from one another) and shared some lively conversation and a small glass of wine and cookies and candy with each, followed by much hugging and kissing. Usually, by noon, we were back home to enjoy our family meal. The meal lasted all day. Before and after eating, we thanked God for His precious gifts of food, family, and our faith. We talked and laughed with one another, watched old movies on TV, read, listened to music, and took naps. It was the most relaxing day of the year for us.
Mom had been an independent lady. She had worked outside of the home during World War II in a factory and also returned to work after her five children started school. When the children were grown, she returned to school to study nursing and did quite well in her studies, making the honor role.
Mom had a strong faith in God and a deep devotion to Our Blessed Mother that she drew from to help her not only in difficult times, but also in her daily struggles. But, losing dad seemed to be one of the most challenging events in her life. He was her “Soul Mate” – they had shared everything together – their faith, their children, their love of nature, their dreams – now it was all gone.
While dad was suffering with his lung cancer and was still lucid, his last words to me were, “Take care of mom.” He loved her so much. He rarely spoke about his own pain, but was very aware of and attentive to her every need. When he was no longer able to care for her needs, due to his own illness, they both agreed it was time to move into the nursing home. They did not want to be a “burden” to their children. They both also had medical needs, which required skilled nursing care. Ten days after their move to the nursing home, dad died.
As my husband and I prepared for the two hour trip that lie ahead, we packed our best china, cloth napkins, silverware, and a table cloth along with the food that I had been preparing for the past week. We called mom before we left. Her voice sounded very weak on the phone. I could tell she was hurting both physically and emotionally. I did not know what to expect this holiday. Sometimes, she expressed anger and bitterness, or feelings of guilt and would often end up in tears. As a result of the depression, she had lost her appetite and was losing weight. I wanted so much just to make things better for her. I prayed, “Dear God, heal her. Help her to enjoy this day. Bring peace to her heart. Give me the grace and strength to get through this day. Help me to be your messenger of love, peace, and joy to her.” I wanted this to be a special day for her. As we made the two-hour drive, my husband and I prayed the rosary for this intention.
When we entered her room at the nursing home, she sat very still in her wheelchair in the dark, quiet room, waiting for us. We opened the blinds a little to let the light in. We gently hugged and kissed her and spoke tenderly to her. “Where’s the food? She exclaimed, “I’m hungry!” She didn’t want to be fussed over, but wanted to eat, so we immediately hauled everything in from the car and set it up in the visitor’s room, which we had reserved a few days earlier. Then, we quickly set the table and heated up the food. The food covered the small table and the countertop: a twelve pound turkey, fresh whole cranberry sauce, spinach (her favorite vegetable), green beans, rolls, yams, and dad’s famous “secret” dressing (which I watched him make one Thanksgiving not so long ago.)
We bowed our heads to say a special prayer of thanksgiving and mom quietly joined in.
She was quiet initially, but seemed to have an excellent appetite, asking for second and even third servings of everything. There was little conversation while we ate. We wanted to follow mom’s lead. After we were finished with the main meal, we took out the pies along with some whipped cream. When she saw the pies, her eyes became as big as saucers. “Why didn’t you tell me you had those pies? We could have eaten them first!” We all burst out laughing. Then, she began to open up, and become quite talkative. “ You certainly are a good cook. Where did you learn to cook like that?” “From you and dad, mom.” “ I don’t remember ever having such a good meal!” “ Can you leave that cherry pie here for me? I’ll eat it later or tomorrow. Write my name on it and put it in the refrigerator.”
About a half an hour later, my niece arrived with a huge plate of food. “ Hi, grandma! Mom had to work today and wanted me to bring this over for you.” She replied, “That looks wonderful, but I just finished eating.” So, we added another plate to the refrigerator collection.
After my niece left, my brother (who had been out of town) stopped by with a sweet potato pie. My mother’s eyes almost popped out. She thanked him and we added that to her refrigerator collection.
After my brother left, mom talked and laughed as we reminisced about past Thanksgivings. Her eyes were growing heavy, so we gathered our things to go. “ Thank you for coming. You have made this a day that I will always remember. Come back again, soon. I love you.” She gave us hugs and kisses, as we left her in the peace of her light-filled room, warmed by the love that filled our hearts.
~ © 2010 Jean M. Heimann