Thanks Unspoken for Things Unknown

“I never liked turkey,” my mother confessed to me several weeks before her death.

I had just offered to heat up some leftovers from the previous day’s holiday dinner, which she had eaten with seeming enthusiasm. It had been one of those rallying moments that the healthy label “miraculous” but which, as my mother was now pointing out, require some sacrifice from the infirm. Lying there in a hospital bed that dominated the small living room of her and my father’s condo, she had been well aware of the significance of the gesture. Her own mother had come to share the meal, and the hopeful smile on my grandmother’s face was ample reward for swallowing a few bites of turkey.

A day later, however, there was no need to perpetuate the myth. “I only cooked turkey all those years because the family liked it,” my mother continued with the tone of relief that comes only from telling a long-hidden truth. “Mom Basting the Turkey” images flickered through my mind as if inside an old-time kinetoscope. This time, however, the sepia tones of nostalgia were tinted with guilt and grief, a once-bright penny turned green.

There was much that my mother, like countless other mothers of her generation, bore in silence. She had her occasional moments of frustration, especially after treatment after treatment failed to cure her cancer, but mostly she held up a solid front. This was, after all, what one expected from Mother, the traditional archetype. If the holiday season demands anything from us, it demands fealty to both tradition and archetype.

And so, this Thanksgiving, I read and listened as folks shared thanks for the standard list of reasons and recipients. I also read and listened as the opposing side voiced equally generic complaints about the holiday, lacing their mock apple pies with cynicism instead of cinnamon. Same penny, different faces: one side sepia, one side green. 

In the end, I have to say I side more with sepia. Why? Because my mother sacrificed too much all those years to jade her memory—our memories—today. She cooked all those turkeys as a gift to her family, and that memory stands as a tribute to a type of selflessness that can be rather hard to discern amidst today’s scenes of hyperconsumerism. We can certainly question its origins and debate its evolution, but the fact remains that in our household at least, my mother did what she did out of love. “Thanks” is the least I can say in return.

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