Today is Thanksgiving. It is also the 7th anniversary of the day my mother died. In 2002, she died on November 26, two days before the holiday, so each year on this national feast day, I think of her. It is ironic and sad that she didn't make it to Thanksgiving in 2002 because it was her favorite holiday. She loved to cook. She loved to eat. But most of all, she loved to be with her family. She loved cooking for her family. She liked Christmas too, but that was a day of gift-opening and other things. Thanksgiving was about family. Nothing was more important to my mom than her family.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to our mothers for giving birth to us, but my debt is especially huge because of what my mom had to go through to get me here. She was unemployed and unmarried and living with her grandmother when I was born. She had worked until about her sixth month of pregnancy because she was petite, and the pregnancy wasn't obvious until then, but as soon as she started to show, she knew it was time to go. Even married pregnant women didn't get to keep their jobs in 1958. Unmarried women were banished to obscurity and talked about in hushed tones for years afterward.
Appearances were very important to my mother. She taught me a lot of things in our years together, but two that stand out were 1) Get an education ("You're going to college, Beth, so you never have to be dependent on a man"), and 2) Never air your dirty laundry ("We may be poor, but we are middle-class because we have middle-class values"). No matter how bad it gets, she believed, always pretend that you are on top of the world. That's how you get and keep respect.
Knowing this about my mom makes her situation all the more amazing to me. Add to her unwed, pregnant state the fact that she lived in a poor, rural area, and that her father was a southern Baptist preacher ("We read the Old Testament, Beth, but we live by the New Testament"), and you have a situation that says everything you need to know about my mother's resolve.
My mom was a talented artist but did not finish high school and had never really wanted anything more than to have a baby and be a mother. Despite a context that would give most 23-year-olds deep anxiety, my birth gave my mother nothing but joy. She told me many times that having me was the best thing that had ever happened to her. When my own daughter was born 30 years later, I understood exactly what she meant.
So on this day when we dedicate ourselves to giving thanks for life and love and happiness, I give thanks for my mom, who looked her hellfire-and-brimstone father in the eye and told him she was pregnant, who raised me and my brothers on her own after her marriage failed, who pushed me to go to college, who taught us to reject hatred and racism and embrace compassion and forgiveness, and who never, ever expressed any regrets about her life or the path it took. Thanks, Mom.