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What We Can Learn From Our Mother’s About Thanksgiving

From my rehab facility, Thanksgiving Day lessons for my daughter.

By Mary Wenger, registered nurse and creator of MarytotheContrary.com

I am in my late 70’s, and it is during this time of year that I think about my parents the most. My mother was a generally unhappy woman, but at Thanksgiving time she was always happy. This is when I think about her and my father the most.

My mother started preparing for Thanksgiving in early November, and her preparations were all about the details. She began by pulling out the recipe books to decide which cookies we would be eating. There would be hundreds of them. One unforgettable year she made 90 dozen cookies, and she always gave most of them away. Thanksgiving through Christmas was the only time of year when, for my mother, it was really about everyone else.

After the cookie planning started, she turned her attention to the turkey.  My father was a welder. We did not have a lot of money, but we were a family of seven so we needed a large turkey – very large – and it was always expensive. This was the one item my mother would splurge on at the the local farm. Mom would proudly make a call to this local farm to order the fat bird, and hang up with a smile as fat as the bird itself.  

Before Thanksgiving dinner we piled into the family car and headed to Cumberland Street in our small town of Lebanon, Pennsylvania to see the Thanksgiving parade. My siblings and I stood in the cold, waiting for what seemed like hours, our hands and toes frozen and teeth shattering as steam puffed through our noses in anticipation.  Our Thanksgiving Day parade was not big, but to us it was so exciting and gigantic. People would dress up and toss candy and gum, which to us kids was a big deal; we would scramble to catch as much as we could in that freezing cold air. The parade marked the unofficial start of Christmas. At the end, Santa Claus would climb up on the fire truck, then up the fire ladder to the second floor of the big department store in town, Bon Ton. There he would wave to the crowd, throwing candy out to all of us.  

We had a lot of food at our Pennsylvania Dutch dinner table: an enormous turkey, peas, creamed corn, jellied cranberry, thick slices of white bread, stuffing, salad, boiled and thick cut potatoes, sweet potatoes with huge chunks of butter, and heaps of mashed potatoes made with real cream. We all drank tall glasses of chocolate milk. For dessert, we could choose from ice cream, jello, cakes and pies.

Thanksgiving represented my mother’s vision of how things could be at her best with our family. She taught me that it’s what you do by example, taking the time to create something for someone else. The details are what people remember. I remember how much she worried about where she got the turkey, the size and plumpness of the turkey, the cookies she would bake, the flour she would use, where she bought the butter, the table setting, and what time we would leave for the parade. Preparing our family for every detail mattered. My mother made sure everyone was ready and together, and she started to ready us early for what was to come next, from food shopping to where we would stand on the parade route for the best experience in our humble town. Family matters, if even for a moment. Eventually we would all split up and live our separate lives. Many of us would stop speaking to each other altogether. On this day we were one, a whole unit in a temporary glory she could revel in.

In one sense, Thanksgiving was an ominous holiday. It signaled that Christmas was on the way. The day wasn’t about the settlers, but that something else was on the horizon; it was a prelude. My mother felt that Thanksgiving, more than any other time of year, was important. To this day, I do too.

I am in a rehabilitation facility temporarily, recovering from brain surgery. I may not be able to come home for Thanksgiving. My daughter is spending the days here with me and we are going over the list of food I’d like to have on Thanksgiving day. She and my son-in-law will have to cook and bring the meal to me. As these memories surface, I am thankful that I am alive today and able pass these memories and lessons on to her.

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