It has been a very long time since I made Thanksgiving dinner... which made it all the more rich to cook again this year.

It started five years ago. My mother was hospitalized when she had a spectacular break with reality with disorienting, violent dementia. My wacky half-sister and I left our jobs and families, in two different states, and did what we had done for the past five years before that. We showed up to figure out how to care for our mother. We had 72 hours before they had to discharge her, but only to a facility that could care for her. So we set about to visit multiple "memory care" places in the Bay Area. Quickly.

By Thanksgiving Day there was a strange lucidity to my mother's conversation, enough that if she was going to agree she was in the hospital, the very least we could do is bring in French dip sandwiches for dinner. Which I smuggled from Applebee's across the street. The three of us dined from styrofoam in the first Thanksgiving we had shared in 40 years. Back home, my daughter was serving her first Thanksgiving dinner with all my little family in her new home.

Once we had settled on a facility and brought things to make her tiny apartment more comfy, we went back to her home to start the process of disposing of her stuff. Everyone was very clear. This was the last chapter and it would be expensive. We were called to the care center twice in the first 48 hours. The first time, because my mother had somehow gotten lost on the grounds. By the time we arrived there, hearts pounding, she had been discovered under a pile of leaves where she had hidden to escape some demons she had created.


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When the second call came, it was to suggest we have a meeting with the medical staff about changing her medications. It appeared she had taken her cane to the Christmas tree in the recreation room and knocked the Bejesus out of it. It was a disturbing incident for the other residents, we were told.

At that point we were so overly tired and emotionally spent, we just got the giggles. I remember all that now with crazy fondness. I had the chance to finally know my half-sister through the trips we would take every three or four months thereafter to make certain our mother was being well cared for. We would stay in a B&B over on the coast and eat meals in places that were all new and exciting for Linda. I taught her how to use an ATM card and I got her her first cell phone. I didn't know that in two and half short years she would be gone and I would be left to care, long distance, for my mother, alone. Until this summer, when my mother passed away.

Back home, my older friend's husband had died and her only direct family member was in another state and came for Christmas but not Thanksgiving. She loves to eat out and only at certain locations. For the past four years we have dined together. One year it was 17 below but she insisted we keep our reservations at Adolph's. She wore her full-length fur coat outside and in, during the entire meal. This year, her grandson came home for the holiday.

So this year, I said I would cook for half of my little family. (The other half was with in-laws in Colorado.) I forgot just how much work that one meal can be! It was buying more food than I ever buy at the grocery store and planning ahead (also not my style) to order the turkey in time. Cleaning the house and polishing the silver and looking for the largest tablecloth and digging out my grandmother's dishes to find the ones least chipped.

Discovering on Thanksgiving Day that this summer I gave away my blender and hand mixer, which dated from the first Bush presidency, I had not replaced them.

We all fit around the table and we conversed in a way the ten-year-old felt as comfortable as I did. No politics were dished up so none needed to be passed. My neighbor friend joined us. It was a lovely evening.

But I am aware of the dangerous chill in the air. "Circling-the-drain time of year," my therapist friends call it. Everyone else seems happy and successful and getting a new Lexus in the driveway. We "live" vicariously through other folks' moments of joy and we project that those must be their lives all the time. Bills paid. Loving mates. Bright, trouble-free children. Fabulous clothes. But unlike the world we may be creating for young children currently, everyone in life does not get a trophy. Sometimes life is hard and sad and you lose things and people. Sometimes memories hit us thorough smells or music or the sight of a chipped plate.

We need to be careful this time of year. There are black ice moments that can flatten us out of nowhere. We need to watch our footing. And we need to keep an eye out for folks whose footing seems unstable. Being grateful is a huge stick to wave at the demons that flap in our peripheral vision. Being joyful is like having the best snow boots/studded tires to keep us from sliding around too much. And taking off your warm glove to grab another's naked hand is the kind of stabilizing charge that can right a fall.

More than ever, it seems the best gifts are those of time and quiet conversation. Of extra-long hugs and mugs of steaming shared beverages. Of acceptance and patience and remembrance. Time now to watch these gifts unwrap themselves. Starting this very Sunday in the Park....

Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.