Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Memories

We are driving to downstate Illinois. It is a sunny temperate day, lots of sky and land with a narrow band of human existence on the horizon, a delicate etching of silos, barns, houses and trees. In Illinois we will pick up my mother and bring her up to Chicago for Thanksgiving, a holiday she spearheaded until she turned 80. Then my niece picked it up, skipping a generation. She faithfully recorded and recreated my mother's recipes, down to the saved spoonful of frosting from the traditional birthday cake for my sister and me, both November babies.

Last year we had driven this same route hoping to deliver my parents to my niece's doorstep. My father was ill so the plans were rejiggered and it was the first Thanksgiving in many years where my parents were not in attendance. A few days later my father ended up in the hospital and a little over two months later was gone. Thanksgiving is a marker, the last time I saw him in his own home when I finally acknowledged how frail he was, how unlikely it was that he'd survive another year with physical infirmity finally outweighing will.

Just a few weeks earlier I had been amazed that my parents had managed to sing Happy Birthday to my answering machine. This act took a level of coordination of which I no longer thought them capable. First they had to remember my birthday, something challenged by failing memories, my mother no longer able to fill in the gaps in my father's memory. For many years I received birthday cards inscribed with my mother's beautiful first grade teacher penmanship. Often my father picked out the card. Now that was a task that eluded them.

My mother now will no longer pick up the phone to make a call so it took my father to place the phone call, it was likely my mother who retained my subtle mention of my birthday and suggested the call. "Happy birthday" my mother sang, leading off, befitting her central role in matters of family. My father chimed in until the song dissolved into "dah dah dah dah."Most amusing was their dialogue at the end where my mother asks my dad what she should do to which he replies, "hang up the phone". I preserved that call which came exactly three months prior to the day of my father's death. This year I played it to myself, an annual ritual for future birthdays.

I remember yet another Thanksgiving four years earlier. Realizing on a conscious level, if not an emotional one, that my father would not be around forever, I decided I needed to have him do a DNA test to further my genealogy research. I ordered the kit and brought it with me on Thanksgiving. Much to my dismay I realized that three cheek swabs were required. As I read the instructions, I began to understand the difficulty of the task I was about to undertake. Several hours had to pass between each swab, then a period of time without food. At Thanksgiving.

We arrived at my niece's home with its bounty of food, the warm up to Thanksgiving dinner. I had done the first cheek swab and awaited the second, but soon had to recalibrate. "Now don't eat anything until I do this," I had cautioned my father. I glanced over at him as he popped a cracker into his mouth. "Aargh!"

I checked my watch for the next opportunity and again reminded him. Again I lost to the food. Take one man with failing memory, put him in a home with tempting food all around and tell him he can't eat. Then try to explain this is so I can get a reading on his DNA. Somehow I managed to get a second swab in the course of a long evening with the third swab postponed until morning.

The hotel we were staying at offered a breakfast so I knew I would have to coordinate with my father before breakfast. We agreed that we would knock on their door at 8 AM, do the final swab and then eat. At 7 my phone rang. "Where are you?" asked my dad. ""We weren't going to meet until 8," I responded. "Oh we're up and at breakfast," he replied. "Have you eaten?" I asked excitedly. "Not yet" he said. "Don't! I'll be right there!" I exclaimed as I grabbed clothes and swabs explaining the urgency to my husband as I hastily dressed. I ran down the stairs to find my parents seated in the breakfast room, juice before them. I did that last swab, not sure I believed their assurances as to food, but hoping it would work. They were able to get a reading and I now get periodic emails advising me of matches for things I don't understand, a project for another day.

This is my mother's first Thanksgiving without my father. She has adjusted well and it occurs to me that failing memory smooths out the sense of jarring absence. I suspect she hasn't retained the memory of last year, the beginning of the end for my father. She is a person of contentment, happy to be awakened by her cat, happy to find her paper at her door on a sunny day. Happy to hear from her daughters each day. My husband and I take the day after Thanksgiving to visit the Art Institute, something that was too complex an undertaking to do with my father in later years. This year my mother looks forward to joining us on this outing. Next year I am taking her to Israel, a lifelong dream of hers. She'll be almost 87 when we go. There is much to look forward to for her even now and for that I am thankful, both for her and for me to be able to share that experience with her.

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