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Thanks in absentia


Last year at this time, I wrote about my family, about the meal we were planning for Thanksgiving, and, especially, about my mother. Here is some of what I said:

            "My brother, Nat, says that food is our family's religion. Although my mother is deeply spiritual, organized religion was absent from my childhood. Still, both my parents grew up in a deeply religious South, and the values of their upbringings certainly hung in the air. My father, an eagle scout who once considered the ministry, was stern about manners and wouldn't abide swearing; mother spent hours singing old Methodist hymns at our 'pianer.'

            Our church was the dining room. My parents' eleventh commandment was, 'thou shalt not be late for dinner,' and we ate at precisely 5:30 every night (being late was grounds for dismissal). I never considered rebelling.

            My mother, Patricia Florence Wilcox, was our high priestess, a magical cook. Her skill and touch are rooted on the farm, in lessons from her stepmother Bonnie, a classic Southern country cook. In school in Atlanta, though, mom's horizons expanded, and she became as adventurous as she was adroit. At our dinner table, the ritual required three rounds of compliments, with mother urging us on between each. I meant every word.

            One night, it was leg of lamb; the next, lamb curry; and the third, Scotch broth. There were Southern nights with the world's best fried chicken, real milk gravy and biscuits, and always greens (everyone fought over the pot liquor). Mom's spaghetti and meatballs recipe came from the old Italian women in Endicott. The wife of one of my father's students taught her Korean. And a trip to Jamaica led to escovich fish. Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving was our high holy day. It was more or less traditional, with roast turkey (unstuffed), corn-bread dressing, and a panoply of vegetables. If we gave thanks to no God, we most certainly did give thanks: to mom, to the produce, to the farms."

            I'm thankful she had the chance to read that, because my mom died, unexpectedly, on May 29. Losing a parent makes no sense. As my friend, Brandon, who also lost a parent this year, said, "It's like finding out the color green is no longer in the world." The loss of Mother, the giver of life, is more nonsensical still.

            But my relationship with my mother went beyond that. A published poet, she gave me a model to which to aspire, and was my best reader and mentor. Burying her ashes in Georgia a month ago, I read these words from her poem, The Hurrying Dead Run Back:

            "When in dreams we speak with them or
            try to kiss them, they may permit us.
            They extend no violence, practice no
            rejection. We awake from abusing them
            and know we have no longer to do with
            assimilable flesh but with traces growing
            fainter on the treasurehouse cave walls
            of mind.


            In their haste, they have left off
            remembering, its perfume lingering in
            the thick vestments of long regard."

            This season of fall holidays haunts me. Columbus Day falls right at her birthday. Veterans Day resonated more than usual as well. My mother was no veteran, but paying respect to the sacrifices of others seems more important now. And Thanksgiving is coming, that special day when we took particular joy in the general gift of Her Cooking.

            Well, we won't be doing that any more. For the first time in my life, I'll spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws, the Harrises, with my brother-in-law, Andrew, preparing a turkey bought from Barry Kucher of Fare Game Foods. I'm grateful to Andrew, and thankful for my second family. But it will be hard not to be sad when the day comes.

            Most of us, when we have our own children, begin to reassess our own parents. It becomes easier to forgive their perceived trespasses, and we develop a greater appreciation for what they've given us. That appreciation is based on the lived understanding of the difficulty of parenthood. But the sad lesson I've learned this year, is that we simply have no idea of the shape and size of the space a parent occupies until that shape becomes a hole. Then we do.

            My father tells a story of a friend who, after losing his mother, complained of not having treated her well enough. "Martin," my father said, "we all feel that way." Perhaps a mother is the one person we can't ever repay or fully appreciate. In a sense, I'm lucky; surrounding myself with her writing, I can still be with her. And I'll try to honor her by being a decent parent myself. But surrounded by blessings this Thanksgiving, I'll feel that all-too-human loneliness of true loss, the surest sign of the endurance of love.

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