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Grateful

A memory: Early morning, fire crackling in the wood stove, first light leaning toward us as Mama rocks me, back and forth. I’m in footed pajamas.
            Thanksgivings will come and go, but this one, the first I can recall, this one has carved itself into me.
            I’m the baby, too young to know grateful, but I know home, family, love.
            Smell of scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy thick in the air. My brother gets his breakfast on a tray because he has rheumatic fever. Five years, my whole life, he’s been sick. I jump on his bed, and the tray rattles. He grabs his glass of milk and laughs. Always happy, my sick brother, with dimples like mine.
            I see it all, still.
            My older brother, home from college, goes squirrel hunting with Daddy. They head toward the woods in their funny caps with flaps over their ears. My sister, home from nursing school, dresses me in pink corduroy overalls. Mama makes an apple pie. The long curly peels drop into the pan. Her fingers press the edge of the pie crust until it looks like lace. I sit on the counter and watch. We make up stories and take turns telling.
            Big wet snowflakes start to fall, and Mama keeps saying, “Why don’t they come home?” The snow turns to rain, and finally they come in with five squirrels in their bag. Squirrel and dumplings tomorrow, Mama says.
            Throughout the day, aunts, uncles, and cousins arrive, coats damp, faces cold when they hug. Mama fixes special food for my sick brother, but he pushes his plate away. Mama’s face has those worry lines she gets, and I feel that pinch in my stomach that I get when I see those worry lines.
            I climb on the piano bench and my fingers go up and down the keys, making Christmas music. A hush falls over the room, then, “How did you do that?” I don’t know how. Somebody asks, “Can you play ‘Jingle Bells’?” My fingers know what to do. “That’s pretty,” Mama says. I play and play and play.

            My sick brother died the next summer.
            One day Daddy packed up a big truck. He gave away every piece of furniture that wouldn’t fit, but my piano made it. We moved to Texas, just Mama and Daddy and me, to a dusty little town, as flat as a dime, where men rode horses to the square and tied them up in front of the stores. They wore big cowboy hats called Stetsons and silver belt buckles bigger than my hand.
            Daddy bought Mama a television, and we watched Hit Parade every Saturday night.  Every week Connie Francis sang “Who’s Sorry Now.” I played it on the piano and tried to sing like her.
            Thanksgiving comes, and in the cool evening, Mama and I sit on our front steps, listening to the radio through the screen door. WSM, the big clear channel from Nashville. I lean against Mama and she says, “We’re blessed.” I want to believe it. We rock back and forth. The sky over Texas stretches forever. There’s something lonesome about sitting out here, knowing everybody back home could be seeing the same silver moon or listening to the same country music.

            Daddy must have seen that heartbreak knew the way to Texas, so we came back home to Tennessee.
            Smells of Thanksgiving dinner fill our house. My aunt’s family and Granddaddy are here. It’s Granddaddy’s year to live with us. He’s been blind for years, but he still cuts a plug of chewing tobacco with his knife and shaves himself with a straight razor. Tells stories about the copperhead that bit him eighty years ago, and he’s had a special shoe made for that foot ever since. About the first airplane his brother saw, the brother that they called a little bit crazy, who cried, “Go back, Jesus! Don’t take me yet!”
            “Get the Kodak,” Mama tells me. She has stacks of photo albums, of many years of holiday tables and joyful faces. I see them still.
            “We’re grateful for this food,” Daddy prays.
            In the afternoon, my older cousin takes me to the Genesco parking lot to practice driving, and then we walk to the swinging bridge. “You have a boyfriend?” he asks. I shrug. A real boyfriend is supposed to call you and say sweet nonsense as you listen at the end of a curly cord. You can tell a real boyfriend during a slow dance, and when he goes out of town for Thanksgiving, he should say, “I will miss you so much.”
            My cousin talks about joining the Army, about Vietnam, but my mind is on slow dances, my driver’s license, and the gentle lull of the bridge as it swings above the clear, rushing creek.
            Later, the sun makes a sudden dip and night comes quickly. The amber lamplight shines on Mama as she reads the newspaper to Granddaddy. He’s rocking back and forth.
            I settle at the piano and play Christmas songs. Mama calls out, “That’s pretty.” Then the phone rings and I make a dash for it. A minute later I’m out the door to meet my best friend under the streetlight at the corner. We laugh and shiver till all the lights in all the houses around us go out, even in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. I can’t see Mama standing at her dark window, but I know the last thing she does is look out to see that I’m here, under the blue glow of the streetlight, and I’m all right.

            I left home, married, and left behind those gentle Thanksgivings. My husband and I spent one Thanksgiving in Iran, in the Peace Corps, having turkey at the American Embassy. We celebrated with his family, where my mother-in-law’s chocolate gravy was a tradition, and with new friends in distant cities where we lived during those nomadic years. Near or far, wherever Thanksgiving came around, memories of the past were always close. The laughter, the sweet faces, and the steamy kitchen of my first home.      
            After more than a decade, I have the home I imagined. A house in the woods. My own home with husband and babies. I am grateful.
            But this Thanksgiving comes in the middle of a dark time. My husband’s father is dying. Caroline, our four-month-old baby, just came home from a week in the hospital. As I nurse her, my heart is so full. Full of a mother’s love, full of a mother’s worry.  
            Dominique, just two-and-a-half, still a baby, pulls her little red rocking chair beside mine and we rock in time. She holds her doll the way I’m holding Caroline. Our comings and goings to and from hospitals have left her bewildered. Her thumb is calloused from sucking. 
            Mother and Daddy arrive on a burst of cold air, bringing boxes of food. Mother will see to it that we have Thanksgiving dinner. Daddy searches for dead trees in the woods to cut up for firewood for our fireplace.
            “It’s hard,” Mother says, to no one in particular. She recalls the frigid November when I was born, when ice weighed down the trees. “All night we heard trees cracking, falling in the woods.”
            I lift Dominique into my lap and hold both of my babies close. We rock back and forth, back and forth. I see it all, still.

            Thanksgivings rock between loss and hope, but once again, we are all together at my parents’ house. Brother, sister’s family, all of us. My girls are playing Scrabble on the floor. The gas furnace pops as the heat comes on. Some inner voice whispers, Etch these moments in your heart. Be grateful.
            Too soon, too soon, Dominique is in college, Caroline with one more year at home. I set the table with my best dishes for my familyall except Daddy, whose absence has a presence all its own. I look out on the woods, the bare trees, the drizzling rain, and I think I hear Why don’t they come home? but it’s Mother saying, “Play something.”
            I play “Silver Bells,” her favorite. “That’s pretty,” she says.
            And now my daughters are young women with young men in their lives, weddings in the future. I rock back and forth between things taken and things given, between worry for what will be and faith in whatever comes.

            Those nostalgic Thanksgivings at Mother’s house are a thing of the past.
            I have come to her house to take her to mine.
            The clouds are dark against the wispy sky. We buried my older brother, Mother’s firstborn, just two weeks ago. My divorce is imminent. Mother says, “I don’t feel like Thanksgiving.” My heart clenches. I resent her sadness. I am afraid of sorrow. My family is too heavy, and I don’t know if I can bear up under the weight, and what will happen if I can’t?
            The light from the pole lamp illuminates Mother, her chair, the linoleum floor around her. She seems much older today. Something crumples inside me. I want to console her, but no consoling words come to mind. I switch on another lamp. “Do you have any food in the house?” I ask. “Why, yes,” she says. I open the refrigerator and imagine the roasting hen, the ham, all the food of Thanksgivings past, but what I find is pimento cheese and vegetable soup. Before we eat, Mother prays a heartfelt prayer— “Thank you, Lord, thank you.” I reach for her hand and she squeezes her gratitude into me.
            “Well, we’d better get on the road,” she says. We pack her ancient blue suitcase.
            As I help her with her coat, she says, “Leave a light on in the kitchen. I don’t want the house to look too lonesome.”

            Today we celebrate Thanksgiving at Dominique and Jorge’s cozy bungalow. It’s a mild day, typical of so many Tennessee Thanksgivings, with the sun trying to peek through the pearl-gray clouds.  Now and then, a brilliant silver lining appears. In a blink, it’s gone.  
            Dominique says it’s easier hosting one big Thanksgiving dinner than hauling four-month-old Frances around to a bunch of family gatherings. Caroline, whose due date is just one week from now, thinks it’s a fine idea, but next Thanksgiving she and Luke will have a baby to haul around, too. 
            Soft, jazzy music mingles with the lilting voices of our small family and Jorge’s large family, some from Colombia, all accustomed to huge meals where no one asks how many. The turkey roasting in the oven must have been the size of an ostrich when it was running around on the Mennonites’ turkey farm. Dominique will not buy her poultry from Kroger. I am her helper. I used to find small tasks for Mother, those last Thanksgivings with her.
            From the baby’s room, a cry so soft that only Dominique hears. “I’ll see about her,” she says. “Can you make sure we have enough clean glasses?”  
            Suddenly the kitchen is heavy with silence. I am heavy with memory. Mother, my sister, my mother-in-law—all gone, one after another. They wouldn’t know what to make of this mostly-organic Thanksgiving meal—artichokes, quinoa, garlic mashed potatoes.
            Dominique calls to me. “Can you help with Frances?”
            And now, with my granddaughter in my arms, I settle in the rocking chair that belonged to my mother. The Baby Einstein CD plays “Für Elise.” Frances’s little muscles relax as she sucks on two fingers. She makes one of those heartwrenching baby coos.
            We move back and forth, back and forth. My heart is full of joy. Full of love for this baby. Full of faces that live in memory, sweet faces that feel so close, they have become me.
            I am grateful for them all. 
            As Frances melts against me. I close my eyes and freefall into another Thanksgiving.
            And I think, That’s me. That’s me, in footed pajamas.

published in Coastal Shelf, Issue 5, Fall 2021          

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