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The Day I Learned to Tolerate My Mom’s Obsession With Holiday Rituals

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This essay was written by Patricia Williams and is an excerpt from her book, While They’re Still Here. After becoming her elderly parents’ full-time caregiver, William took over handling the family's Thanksgiving festivities — but her aging mom wasn't quite ready to pass the torch.

During Mom’s better years, she cooked, crafted, and exhibited her holiday talents from Valentine’s Day through Halloween, but the weeks before Thanksgiving and through Christmas converted our home into a studio and gallery for her annual one-woman shows. For Thanksgiving, she set high standards for blue-ribbon success for her principal passion: food. I felt tired just thinking about it.

The dogs and I went over to drop off Dad’s pills, a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. After giving the dogs their treats, Mom hunkered down at her “Command Post," layered under cookbooks and clippings of recipes.

“I can’t find my recipe for corn pudding. I know it’s here somewhere. The dried corn I ordered from the Amish store just came. What about cranberry relish? Do you want me to make that from scratch?”

Evidently, we were planning the Thanksgiving menu today. I sat down, nixing my plan to slip in and out.

“I was hoping you’d make the pies.” I tried not to sound snippy.

“Oh, of course. I thought I’d make two pumpkins and an apple. How’s that sound?”

“That’s a lot of work. Don’t you think just pumpkin would be okay?”

“Well, no. Maybe someone doesn’t like pumpkin,” she answered, like I had asked a stupid question.

I thought, it’s Thanksgiving; they can eat pumpkin pie, like all the rest of America. I said, “Great.”

“I’ll make those good dinner rolls, too. Everybody likes them.”

“Do you think we need rolls when we’re having dressing?” I asked. They both just equaled bread to me.

I could see a tug-of-war beginning in her eyes. She wanted the meal of her memories but knew she should relinquish some control to me. Did this same exchange happen the first time her mother handed off the task to her? Gramma probably backed into a quiet retreat, just as I was about to do. She waved a thin, crackled piece of paper toward me. “Do you want to make Aunt Kay’s tomato pudding? You always liked it.”

“I think I’ll stick to the traditional dishes: stuffing, yams, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce. Just that will be a lot.”

“Oh, all right, I’ll make it. And succotash.” She harrumphed, probably wondering why I was so lazy. “I don’t know how you and Dad did it all.”

She answered as if she were teaching me how to do it. “I planned out every day right after Halloween. I put on music and attacked one room a day, cleaning every cobweb, dust bunny, window, closet, and drawer. You kids helped on the weekends.

“You always helped me get ready. I wish I could help you clean now,” she said, with sympathy and lament in her voice. I knew she really did wish she could help.

“Me too. You always had more energy than I ever did.”

Thanksgiving Rituals

In my memory, Thanksgiving was an overflowing cornucopia of food and family. By the time I woke up, the turkey wafted sage through the house, pans of sweet potatoes were poised for brown sugar, and serving dishes were selected. My enthusiastic parents toiled from the wee hours of morning, preparing the feast, then entertained and fed two dozen relatives and cleaned it all up before they went to bed.

I didn’t have a thimble of their energy now, but I hoped if I planned well, I could pull off a manageable meal.

By the Sunday before the feast, I felt in pretty good shape with the cleaning and shopping. I stopped in to change Mom’s kitchen light bulb and drop off Dad’s week of pills.

Mom presided at the table, rustling cookbook pages with agitation. “This casserole looks good. I’ll need lima beans, though. Do you have any?”

“I don’t, Mom. And I really don’t want to go to the store again. I have to take Dad to the VA hospital tomorrow. Then Tuesday and Wednesday I’ll prep and cook.” For days she’d been offering me recipes for more side dishes, which I’d declined, reminding her of the eight or ten we’d already planned.

“My neighbor, Ron will get lima beans for me,” she declared defiantly. “He’s getting marshmallows, too. And a few other things I need.” This was her way of warning me that her marshmallow-fruit-cocktail-salad, a sweet and fat-filled dish I wasn’t thrilled about serving, would grace my table, as well as other unknown and unauthorized offerings. So much for wholesome, low fat, and organic. I filed it all in the “Not Worth Fussing About” category, an overflowing new folder in my brain.

Passing of the Torch

The day arrived, staged with a frosted lawn, a crisp blue sky, and no ominous weather predictions. By late afternoon, the house emanated a holiday aura, the food was in the correct stage of warm, hot, or cold. I ran across the street to retrieve Mom and Dad so they could settle in before anyone else arrived. I had already transferred Mom’s “Command Post” chair, the only chair she was comfortable in, and positioned a chair for Dad where he could see and hear the best.

I followed Mom, pushing her walker toward the double French doors into the dining room, drawn by the long table fully donned in its antique linen gowns and crystal and silver jewels.

“You ironed Gramma’s banquet cloth and napkins. I always did, too.” She caressed her mother’s antique damask tablecloth, then embraced a monogrammed napkin. Mom greeted her crystal goblets, her antique candelabra, and my grandmother’s silverware like long-lost relatives until the dogs and arriving guests interrupted her reunion.

Everyone showed up safely, high-spirited, and in good health. The house burbled with keepsake smells and laughter. Mom presented three prize-winning pies, four dozen lightly browned dinner rolls, and side dishes that drew compliments. I paused to savor the moment and store some in a memory bank, knowing how fleeting the confluence of this many contented heartstrings could be.

Then I felt my gears subtly shifting, careening into the next holiday with a mixture of excitement and exhaustion. Thanksgiving was just the appetizer for the main course in our family holiday schedule. Mom’s last words when I drove them home were, “What time are you bringing the tree over tomorrow?”

This essay was written by Patricia Williams and is an excerpt from her book, While They’re Still Here (She Writes Press, copyright 2017).

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