A True Thanksgiving

"I had a new sense of purpose and thankfulness for life."

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

~G.K. Chesterton

A few years ago, right before Thanksgiving, I was dumped without warning by the man I thought I would marry. The next day, I was laid off from my administrative assistant job. The day after that I turned forty.

I'd lived in New York City for ten years trying to make it as an actress. While I'd had some luck on stage, nothing had paid enough for me to make a living at it. I was single, broke and approaching middle age in a profession that worships youth and beauty.

The last thing I wanted was to go home to Florida for Thanksgiving and catch up with my younger, married and successful cousins. At least we would all meet at Brooks, my favorite restaurant back home and a family holiday tradition for twenty years.

The day before I flew to Florida, I got a terrible cold. I was lying in bed feeling very sorry for myself when the phone rang. It was my mother.

"Darling," she said. "I have wonderful news!"

This made me cringe. Her last report of wonderful news was she had married a man she met online two weeks before. Now, recently divorced for the fourth time and living in a new apartment complex for "active elders," I feared the worst.

"What is it?" I sniffled.

"Well…" she replied, pausing for dramatic effect, "you know how every year we have dinner at Brooks. This year, I've decided to make dinner for the family myself. Well, with your help, of course. Let's see, we should have... twenty-five people, not including us. Won't that be so much fun?"

Could I have pretended she had the wrong number? Yes, if I hadn't been so stoned on cold medicine and thinking clearly. Instead I mumbled "Yeah... great... can't wait" and hung up, pulling the covers over my head before passing out.

The next day, I arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale airport looking and feeling absolutely miserable.

I picked up my luggage from baggage claim and walked outside to look for my mother. A platinum blonde pulled up to the curb beside me and honked the horn. "Do you like it?" my mother exclaimed. She leaned out of the car window to toss her formerly salt-and-pepper curls, now flat-ironed and reaching her shoulders.

"Who are you and why did you steal my mother's car?" I replied.

She laughed like a girl of sixteen. "Silly! This is to celebrate my wonderful new life!"

"Oh. Wonderful," I said.

I should have been happy for her, but at that point my mom looked and sounded ten years younger than me.

The next day was madness. I shopped and cooked more by noon than I had in years. At midnight, I was bent over the sink, elbow-deep in a still-frozen turkey, trying to pull out the gizzards with both hands.

Even though the activity helped take my mind off my troubles, I still felt sad about my life and worried about what I would do when I got back to New York.

Thanksgiving Day, we woke up at 6:00 AM to finish cooking. I never thought we would pull it off, but somehow, we managed to prepare everything, clean the house, fit four card tables next to the dining room table in a one-bedroom apartment, polish the silverware, find matching plates and even create four miniature pumpkin centerpieces.

We put out our casseroles and hot dishes on the buffet, checked the turkey, and just had time to change clothes before the first guests arrived. Soon the house was overrun with family. No one asked about my boyfriend or if I had gotten any acting work lately. They all just oohed and ahhed over the table. They couldn't believe we did it all ourselves.

Before we ate, we said grace and went around the table to say what we were thankful for. I've always loved doing this each year but now, even though I was proud of helping my mom and glad to see everyone, I didn't really feel like contributing.

Mother's turn came before mine. She said, "I am thankful for my health, my family and my friends. I am especially thankful to my daughter Alyssa who taught me the meaning of gratitude on a Thanksgiving thirty-nine years ago."

I looked up from my plate. What did she mean by that?

She continued. "Alyssa's father Ed had just gotten out of the Army. I was a new wife and mother of a one-year-old. We left Ft. Polk in Louisiana for Pittsburgh because that's where Ed found work. Well, the Army lost all our furniture in the move and we had no money to buy more. We also couldn't afford to go home for Thanksgiving.

"I went out and bought one baby food jar of strained turkey and one of strained carrots for Alyssa and two turkey sandwiches for us. We sat on the floor in our empty apartment and cried over our misfortune. Then we heard Alyssa laughing."

My mother looked over at me with tears in her eyes. "You were so happy. You were singing and having such a good time playing with your food in that cold empty apartment. I pray that you will always find happiness in every living moment, my darling daughter."

I was stunned. I had asked myself how a woman of 65 who lived alone on a fixed income decided to become a hot blonde and make Thanksgiving dinner for almost thirty people.

Now I had my answer. She was just following the example I had set so long ago and had forgotten.

When I returned to New York, I had a new sense of purpose and thankfulness for life.

I also went blonde.