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Hand Turkeys and Paper Pilgrim Hats

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Thanksgiving was my mother's favorite holiday. It wasn't even close. She liked Christmas but I think the whole gift-giving thing put pressure on her that wasn't there at Thanksgiving. At Christmas you are expected to give gifts . . . at Thanksgiving all you are expected to bring is yourself . . . and, of course, an appetite. Yep, Thanksgiving was her favorite. That fact added an extra layer of bitterness when she died the day before Thanksgiving when I was 14.

Her passing was completely unexpected. We didn't see it coming. This type of thing is never pleasant and happens to everybody. The fact that it happens to everybody didn't help me or my brothers a bit at 14, 10 and 9. I remember when my father told us about momma. We were taken from school early. He was waiting for us in the back seat of our neighbor's car. My youngest brother had a drawing in his lap of a turkey that was fashioned from an outline of his hand. He had written "To Mom" on it. Mom should have put it on the fridge. It never made it. I was looking at that picture when I found out. My relationship with Thanksgiving, and the Holidays in general changed in that moment. It would be a long time changing back.

Early in the process I could feel myself getting angry. Things happened in a slow blur. We rallied at a neighbor's house. Well-meaning friends asked a minister to come see us. We sat in the living room and talked about how God moves in ways we don't understand. Good point. He does. He moves in very mysterious ways. Why He would yank my mother away from our family the day before her favorite time of year was a real mind-bender. It wasn't mysterious, it was arbitrary and mean. I wasn't in the mood to hear a word about God's plan.

At the end of our session, the minister asked our friends if he could use their phone. I could hear him talking. At the end of the conversation I heard him say to the person on the other end of the phone, "Happy Thanksgiving." He had to be kidding. Happy Thanksgiving? How was Thanksgiving going to be the least bit happy? I couldn't imagine anything ever being happy again. Then it dawned on me. He wasn't talking to me. He was talking to somebody who would have a Happy Thanksgiving. The minister would have a Happy Thanksgiving. It would be tempered by the fact that he had just talked to a family that had lost their mother. Everybody would be sad for a moment then they would be thankful that their family was intact. Then they would give thanks. My family's tragedy would be the catalyst for their thanks and gratitude. All around us, life would go on as if nothing ever happened. I felt physically ill. And angry.

That night we stayed at the neighbor's house. I slipped into the room that my brothers were sharing. I sat beside them. They were so little. I was angry and it had to go somewhere. I know it isn't logical to hate a holiday or any day for that matter, but it seemed like Thanksgiving was making everybody in the world forget about my Mom. That ripped me up. "Screw you Thanksgiving," I thought. "You forget about us? Then I can forget about you. You too Christmas." In our house at that moment the Christmas ornaments were waiting to be hung on a tree. I was done.

So at 14 I completely disconnected myself from the Holidays. At least I did so as best I could. I didn't have much control over what my family did. We cooked turkey on the 4th Thursday in November and put up a tree shortly afterward. I always had other things to do. When I couldn't get out of it, I participated with icy anger. I was LOTS of fun to be around.

I was able to distance myself completely from the Holidays when I left home. My first Thanksgiving away from home was spent at an air base in Japan. I went bowling. I ate dinner in the chow hall. I walked past the turkey and dressing line and went to the side serving burgers. Christmas was spent much the same way. I was making my statement.

Coming back to the states meant spending some Holidays with my family. I remember standing in my Dad and stepmother's home at Thanksgiving and wondering how anybody could be happy. They all knew what happened. How could they possibly move on? I found out that when you want to cut yourself off from people, they will let you do it. I saw myself making a statement. Seems I was stating that I am a big, moping, anti-social mess. I would snap out of it after the New Year, but people weren't always ready to hang around with me again. Fine, I didn't need them. I was in a spiral and what finally saved me was my son.

I managed to keep the Holidays at arm's length even after I got married. Thanksgiving and Christmas and I attended the same parties, but we weren't on speaking terms. We were more on Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver "You lookin' at me?" terms.

I understood Christmas a little more after I got married, and a lot more when my oldest son, Parker, was born. I was still suspicious because I knew that the Holidays could turn on you. But for my son's sake, I played the game. Thanksgiving and I were still on the outs. I came to dinner. I put turkey on Parker's plate, but I still felt a coldness. My mom died on November 23 and it just hurt and I couldn't let it go.
Then Parker started school. Nobody parties like kindergartners party. I picked Parker up from school the day before Thanksgiving. He was full of pumpkin pie and wearing a paper Pilgrim hat. He talked about the party at school and how he wanted a turkey leg the next day. When we got home I dropped into my usual seasonal pity pool while Parker showed his mother things he had made at school. Soon I felt him touch my arm.

"Hi Daddy," he said. He was wearing his paper Pilgrim hat. In his hand he had a picture of a turkey made from an outline of his hand. I froze. For a moment I was in the back seat of our neighbor's purple Plymouth Satellite learning that my mom was gone forever. Parker offered his hand turkey to me. "This is for you," he smiled. I was numb. I took it. And nothing happened. I didn't collapse, I didn't have a panic attack. It was sweet and warm. He smiled at me at me and climbed in my lap. "Mommy told me why you are sad, Daddy," he said. "I am sorry your mommy died and I am sorry that Thanksgiving makes you so sad." Inside me 19 years of anger and fear and grief cracked . . . then it shattered.

Ever have a moment when you realize that you have spent half your life being a complete dumbass? This was my moment. I hugged Parker and for the first time since mom died, with the brief exception of his birth, I cried. I cried for a lot of things. I cried for a woman snatched from earth far too early. I cried for a 14 year-old kid that thought the world didn't care. Mostly I cried because I distanced myself from family and friends, the ones who wanted to show me how much the world cared. I looked down at Parker and his Pilgrim hat. He smiled and held up his hand turkey and somewhere a 14-year-old relaxed a little bit. I wasn't done with my issues, but I was done with that phase of my anger. A little boy with blond hair, a paper Pilgrim hat and a hand turkey led me back to the Holidays. I reconnected.

A funny thing happened when I reconnected with the Holidays. I found my mom there. Now it makes perfect sense. It was her favorite time of year. Now when we cook Thanksgiving dinner I feel her hand on my shoulder, I feel her warmth and her strength. I feel her telling me that she didn't spend her 14 years with me to have me spend so much time being a jack ass. Even in spirit form during the Holidays, she is still my Mom.

Today, I am thankful. I am thankful every day. I am thankful for the laughter and love that permeate our home. I am thankful for all the things that my mother taught me in the time we had together, but I am most thankful for two things I learned after she passed.
1. Hold on fiercely to the people you love. When I leave a person I love I tell them I love them. Always. You don't know when you will see them next.
2. Anger hurts the angry and hate hurts the hater. That is a lesson that I have learned only lately.

We are pretty much Holiday nuts here now. We are actually obnoxious about it. I am a little irritated that we don't have a hand turkey on the fridge. We will fix that soon. On Thanksgiving Day people will come to our home. It will be warm and happy and downright festive. There is much to be thankful for. I will be thankful for the happiness in our home and for the friends and family around us. I will say a prayer for those who can't be with us and those that feel the world is passing them by. Yes, there is much to be thankful for . . . friends, family, life, love, little boys, hand turkeys and paper Pilgrim hats.