This year, Thanksgiving will be devoted to my mom.
My mom, who is the daughter of immigrants from Northern Ireland, who crossed the sea to America, dirt poor, but rich with a naiveté that allowed hope.
My mom, whose own mom, after a total of three healthy-born children and more than five miscarriages, left her family when my mother was four years old.
My mom, who is the only daughter of a loving father who, alone, raised his three children in Elizabeth, New Jersey and supported them by driving an ice truck.
My mom, innately feisty (and as no-nonsense as good Irish whiskey), who, determined to break the rut of struggle, made a life for herself. By herself.
My mom, a young 20-something woman who became a top-notch secretary, who eventually married her boss, my dad — a handsome, educated, athlete and poet, whose quiet demeanor rimmed (and sometimes masked) his zest and verve, and who, with my mom, raised three children who inherited her hardiness and his calm.
My mom, a 47-year-old woman who left that marriage after 25 years because she wanted what she never had.
My mom, a middle-aged woman whose grit and brains (and good legs), helped build a successful career as an export administrator (and leg model) for an international cosmetics firm.
My mom, who eight months ago was living with the onset of mild dementia, but was still somewhat independent, smart, dignified, supportive, loving, flawed. And feisty.
Then she fell.
She fell and hit her head on a concrete curb on the side of the road while walking alone near her home. For some time, her snow-white coat made her look like a mound of plowed snow, until someone stopped and called for help.
She was fast-forwarded into dementia with severe brain trauma that thrust her into a dark tunnel of a life; a kaleidoscope of sound bites from the past, confusion, hallucinations.
And the occasional laugh:
“When did you turn Chinese?” she asked me.
“I was on an airplane last night that had no pilots.”
“Watch out! Stay next to me! There’s a force field around us!”
And the latest, “They don’t make Pepperidge Farm Stuffing Mix anymore.”
Among the things she worries about when she remembers who she is and who she was, is sending birthday cards, buying gifts, and just recently buying pies from Delicious Orchards and that Pepperidge Farm Stuffing Mix to make her stuffing for the holidays.
For as long as I can remember, no one else has ever made the Thanksgiving stuffing. And until this Thanksgiving, no one knew her recipe. I now have her old, broken, but neat, recipe box from the ’60s with the squawking roosters on the front.
Tucked in between Cabbage with Onions and Irish Bread, and on what appears to be the original 3×5 card, is Sausage Stuffing.
So this Thanksgiving, to be closer to mom, our party of eight will gather in my cozy four-room condo on the beach with the kitchen that only fits five. We’ll cram a big turkey into a less-than-ideal oven (it’s electric!) that comfortably fits a chicken, not a turkey. We’ll have the usual sides — mashed potatoes (I shamelessly might go instant), my mom’s creamed corn recipe that she shared with everyone, a pile of roasted veggies, and my mom’s stuffing recipe that she’s never shared with anyone.
My hope is that mom will make the stuffing (a double batch) for the first time with all of us crammed around her because she can’t be alone with a stove. I’ll imagine what she would be saying if she could.
I’ll chop and mince and measure. She’ll stir and sautee under my brother’s watchful eye. She’ll assemble. (“Never, ever in the bird!”) She’ll put it in the oven. I’ll take it out. I’ll sneak a spoonful before it reaches the table.
We’ll all eat as much stuffing as we can muster, in case this is the last time she has a hand in it. I’ll surprise her with an apple pie and a pumpkin pie from Delicious Orchards for dessert that she can take turns picking at with alternate sides of her fork. (“I think we need whipped cream.”)
We’ll talk as if Thanksgiving and mom are what they used to be. We’ll call her brother who is on the edge of 90 and forgets that his sister is “gone,” and talks as if it’s 1965. We’ll open and read to her the letters from family in Northern Ireland that have piled up.
And no doubt, she’ll remember none of it, including how much stuffing I ate. (“Put the stuffing in front of Lois.”)
But the rest of us will.