One of my pieces in Serving Up Memory is entitled “Hats and Cornbread,” and it begins by telling of the Thanksgiving after my mother’s passing. My father had predeceased her by two years, and so we were, her children and grandchildren, trying our darnedest to make this holiday festive. By golly, we were not going to let the grim reaper steal our joy.

A number of us, including two of my siblings and I, gathered on Chesnut Street with a  “take-in” meal. I don’t recall the victuals, but I do remember that we ate in the kitchen and not the dining room and that we felt strange and happy at the same time—strange because our parents weren’t there in their own home and happy that we were together. At some point, we rummaged through our parents’ (and grandparents’) hats, and we each selected the one we wanted to wear. My nieces picked up pocketbooks of my mother’s, remembering that she always made sure her purse matched her shoes.

When I submitted that story to the group for critiquing, I wasn’t expecting the feedback that I received. I expected every person to make recommendations for improvement, and I even wondered if a couple of writers might think the story too sappy. Boy was I surprised!

Sure, there were some recommendations, but the consensus was that the events of that Thanksgiving afternoon had universal meaning. Although it was a personal story, “Hats and Cornbread” has implications for every family who has suffered loss or change, whether by death, divorce, remarriage, relocation, or any other reason. People leave us, and we are left to rebuild the structure of not just holidays, but of everyday life.

Back to that Thanksgiving afternoon, here’s the passage about it from Serving Up Memory:

We wore our hats hoping to keep that holiday spirit alive. Did it work? Not really. The picture snapped by my son-in-law late that afternoon looks like everyone is having a good old time, but looks can be deceiving. Despite our fake smiles, we were all still heartbroken, our psyches raw with fresh grief.

It probably hit me for the first time that evening: My family holidays with kith and kin in the manner I had known all of my life were over. Sure, I’d share turkey and dressing, red velvet cake, and other seasonal fare with various relatives each year, but my mother’s passing on October 20, 2000, marked the end of gatherings in the family home. Marjorie Ann was the heart of it all. It was never the same after her passing.

As the season creeps nearer each day, thoughts of earlier gatherings and traditions fill my mind. John and Margie’s children have all moved on, yet we hold those memories of love and good cheer in our hearts. I have other families on my mind today, and I hope that they’ll all find their way into and through the holidays without stumbling or experiencing crippling heartache.

The death of a loved one, regardless of age or status, changes everything. You can’t ignore the loss, the empty place at the dining room table. And yet you must not succumb to grief. As I write this, I’m thinking of dozens of people whose holiday season has been unalterably changed, some just within the last few days. I’m hoping they’ll all find a way to feel peace.

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