The days leading up to Thanksgiving are, for me, the time when I feel the presence of my mother most strongly. For many who have lost loved ones, the holidays can often be complicated, a time when the joy of the season cannot be fully felt, or loss and grief are too fresh to allow for any joy at all. In my case, my mother’s death in 2004 is long enough in the past to only leave twinges of sadness, and mostly I can enjoy the memories of the person she was and think of her with fondness.
Except at Thanksgiving. You see, Thanksgiving was her holiday. My mother was one of four sisters, and as adults they divided the holidays up, each hosting the entire extended family, which some years could exceed 20 people. I’ve come to learn that many families, when dealing with groups of this size, will ask each family to bring something as a contribution to the meal. But my mother viewed holiday entertaining as competition – a chance to best her sisters with culinary delights that took weeks to perfect. And perfection was essential. I was never trusted with any of the cooking, but I was required to spend hours polishing the silver, and then when I set the table, I had to use a ruler so that each utensil was placed exactly the correct distance from both the plate and the edge of the table.
My mother’s Thanksgiving table possessed perfectly ironed linens, a fabulous centerpiece from the best florist and was loaded with the side dishes she spent days cooking. I’ll admit that as she aged, the meals became a little less elaborate. But even so, the autumn after she passed away, when it suddenly hit me that I would have to cook Thanksgiving dinner, there was no question in my mind that I needed to produce a Thanksgiving meal worthy of my mother.
Why do we do these things to ourselves? Why do we, unquestioningly, go along with the pre-programming? Too often we chain ourselves to our own pasts or to the expectations others set for us and lose the ability to make each new day our own. Somehow, I convinced myself that to do Thanksgiving “right” was to cook a 20-pound turkey, along with seven or so other required dishes. For years I didn’t permit guests to bring any food; I insisted on total control to create my mother’s version of perfection. Instead of embracing a holiday that celebrated family, friendship, sharing of traditions and meaningful connections, I had created a Thanksgiving of timetables, procedures, demands and impossible expectations. Such practices left no room for living joyfully in the moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that peace is all around us – in the world and in nature – and within us – in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed. It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice. We need only to find ways to bring our body and mind back to the present moment so we can touch what is refreshing, healing and wondrous. Over the past few years, as I strive to be more mindful of the wonderful blessings each day brings and to appreciate the opportunity in every moment, I see that the need for control only blocks the way for new possibilities. I begin most days reciting the “Meditation on Breathing”: When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love. Over time, as I learn to pay attention to the small moments of each day, I break apart all that pre-programming and no longer allow the past to unduly influence the present. This Thanksgiving week, I can certainly hear my mother’s voice in my head, but I can breathe, smile and choose to follow my own voice instead.
This Thursday, my more humble, and more adventurous, table will hold dishes made by my guests from their family traditions. Some will have exotic spices, some will even be vegan. My own preparations for this meal will be calm and imperfect. For me now, happy Thanksgivings have little to do with the food or the place settings. The perfect happiness is the people gathered at the table – their stories, their smiles, their love. The memory of my mother will still be there. I continue to make her cranberry chutney recipe, which is truly a delight. But my tablecloth will be slightly wrinkled because I don’t like ironing, and I bought paper napkins (gasp!) to serve with the pie. Simple is good. It allows time to make moments that matter. Tomorrow, I am teaching my son to make one of the Thanksgiving dishes he really likes, and however it turns out, it will be perfect because we created it together.