Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal. I wanted to help because the Center has been a beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.
Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.
When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.
Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.
“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”
Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.
Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.
“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.
“Where do you work?” I asked.
“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”
“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.
The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”
“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”
“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”
And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.
Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.
“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”
I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.
Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.
That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.