thank God for you,
the wind beneath my wings..."
Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" says it all. My siblings would probably agree that without our mother's courage and grace...we would not be who we are today. She has always been content to let us shine.
Our dad passed on when I was 19, and the youngest of her eight children were toddler twins. Here is the story of that first Thanksgiving, and just one of the reasons why she is, still, my hero. If this story seems familiar, it was written for the Christian Science Sentinel as a children's story in 1988 and was told from my grade school-age sister, Lila's point of view. TMCYouth (this link will take you to a special Thanksgiving page with a number of stories of gratitude...mine is just one of them) recently requested that I write it from my own point of view for their website. I share it here with my love and gratitude:
I was 19 that autumn. My dad had been killed in an accident, and I'd just given up on the dream I cherished for longer than I could remember-and had worked so hard to make come true. I was walking away from a full-ride scholarship to the Ivy League university of my choice, so that I could work three jobs, go to school at a local college…one class at a time, and help raise my 7 younger brothers and sisters. This was not in any long-term plans I'd had for my life.
Dad's passing that summer was heartbreaking for our family. We'd gotten through the memorial service and the early weeks of grief, surrounded by extended family and church friends. But by the time late fall rolled around, we were really on our own.
The aunts, uncles, and cousins had returned to their homes in other states, and the church my family attended was almost an hour away in another city. We were living on a leased farm in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country, eating the last of that summer's home-canned harvest and watching the pantry empty out faster than a grain silo with an open door.
My sister, Nancy, was working at a local fast food restaurant after school, I worked three jobs, my sister Linda babysat, and the boys did odd jobs when they could. But we were barely able to pay the rent on the old stone farmhouse, and keep the utilities on. Mom still had toddler twins to care for and the station wagon that had been my dad's pride and joy a few years earlier, was now a gas-guzzling behemoth with more than 100,000 miles under her sequoia green exterior.
I could barely breathe some days as Thanksgiving drew closer. We had a large bag of rice, and a few remaining mason jars filled with green beans and red beets to look forward to, rather than the turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pie with ice cream we'd enjoyed just the year before.
And it wasn't the food itself I worried that we would miss. It was the joy of preparing it together as a family. The steamy kitchen, the scent of sage and nutmeg, the boisterous rebuke dad would get from our mom, when he tasted the stuffing before it was its time...and mom's "can you believe it, right out of the back of the bird" as soon as she heard the oven door creak open...knowing it wasn't because he was basting her masterpiece.
I felt sick as the days tumbled towards that most loved holiday. Some days, the fear of disappointment, seemed greater than the fear of starvation and homelessness looming over me each night as I tried to fall asleep under the heavy quilts next to my mom.
The weather the week before Thanksgiving was glorious. Bright blue Pennsylvania skies haloed the pristinely painted, and cared for, red Amish barns dotting our winding country road. As my school-age siblings ran from the school bus stop, I could hear the squeals of joy and crunch of leaves that preceded a their burst through the kitchen door.
Mom greeted them, as she'd been greeting each of us since I'd started Kindergarten 14 years earlier, with the eager curiosity of a child. "What was it like?" "What did you learn?" "Did you bring me a picture drawn (or a story written, a note from the teacher)?"
Their answer that day made my heart sink like a lead stone. right to the pit of my stomach. There was going to be a food drive, Lila, Ricky and Wayde explained, and every child that brought in something would be able to sign the big card that would be given, with the food, to a needy family.
"Great," I thought, as my mom did what I knew she'd do from the minute the children started telling her about the project. She went to the pantry and took the last three mason jars full of beans and beets off the shelf and brought them to the kitchen table for wrapping in brown paper she already had the children decorating with colored pencil and crayon drawings of turkeys and pilgrims.
I pulled her aside and in my most grown up "hiss" of disapproval I reminded her that we had no money left to purchase food for our own Thanksgiving dinner, and that if she gave the children those vegetables, our own meal would consist of nothing more than rice...and more rice. I'd had it.
I was angry at Mom for being so clueless about the direness of our situation. I was angry at Dad for leaving us without insurance, pension, or a house of our own, and for leaving me to clean up this mess. I was angry that I'd given up my dreams of attending university full-time, in exchange for waitressing at night, and typing all day. I was angry at God for not sending anyone to help me navigate a sea of debt and fear. I was way over my 19 year old head and beginning to drown.
But it was as if Mom didn't even hear the tone of my voice. She smiled gently as if she were brushing off a teenager's "whatever."
Later that evening, she proceeded to remind us all of how Jesus had fed the multitudes on the hillside. She pointed out that Jesus hadn't produced loaves and fishes from mid-air, but that he had asked the disciples what they had to give, had taken it, blessed it, and then had given it back to the disciples, to give to the multitudes. She then, in her most mother tiger-like voice-the one you didn't mess with-said that nothing, and no one, would deprive her children of their right to be generous. To be givers.
And that was that.
The children wrapped their precious canned goods in the homemade wrapping paper, and the next day took their contributions in to add to the school food drive, and to sign the big card for the needy family.
When Thanksgiving Eve arrived I felt cynical, bitter, and yes, so terribly disappointed I could barely stand the bile in my throat and the ache in my chest. I missed it all. The smell of pumpkin cooking on the stove for pies, the sound of pans clattering, the small yellow box of Bell's stuffing seasoning on the counter as mom pinched it into the bowl of stale bread we'd have been tearing into little bits for weeks.
I was beyond crying. I was tense with fear, and sick with anguish, for myself and for my siblings. I couldn't imagine we'd ever know another happy Thanksgiving again.
When Mom happily suggested that we all gather around the big table in the kitchen to prepare for Thanksgiving in a fresh, new way that year, I has so thoroughly resigned to just getting through the next day without collapsing that I actually joined them, with arms tightly folded at my chest and a look of disgust on my face.
Mom explained that she wanted us to go around the table and tell each other what we were grateful for. I am sure, even now almost 40 years later, that I rolled my eyes in derision. Ricky was grateful for his bicycle. At that Mom stopped us and clarified the goal a bit more. We were to think of things we were grateful for that you couldn't see with your eyes or touch with your hands. Hmmm…it was quiet for a bit.
And then Lila said that she was grateful she had finally memorized "The Lord's Prayer" from start to finish (see Matthew 6:9-13). It had been a Sunday School assignment and she'd worked hard to accomplish it.
Mom thought that this was a great thing for us all to be grateful for, and suggested that Lila lead us in saying The Lord's Prayer aloud. With another eye-roll of exasperation at my mom's spiritual idealism and unwillingness to acknowledge how desperate our situation was, I complied.
"Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
In earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread…."
Just as we got to the part about the daily bread, the doorbell rang. Faster than Mom could get up, the younger children were up from the table and out of the kitchen, running down the long hallway to the front door. Nancy got there first, and when she opened the door there were at least twenty parents, children, and teachers from the grade school.
We were all so surprised, me especially. Surprised and humbled. We lived in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Amish farms...and these "plain and simple" neighbors had ventured beyond their quiet isolation, to care for our needs. Our visitors had boxes and boxes of food. And there, in the hands of a tiny kindergartener, was the card that Lila, Ricky, and Wayde had signed at school, earlier in the week, once they'd placed their carefully wrapped mason jars next to the other donations.
Mom was smiling, and there were tears in her eyes. Today I know that her tears were those of gratitude. What she'd wanted most for her children that Thanksgiving was some assurance…a real reason to believe…that they could trust in the power of giving, and the right to be generous, no matter what your human circumstances are. And of course she invited everyone to come in and celebrate.
Later, as she was putting on the milk to make hot cocoa (milk and cocoa that came from the donated food in the boxes), Mom called me in to help her with getting out the cups, pouring, and serving. While she stood at the stove stirring cocoa and sugar into the pan of hot milk, she asked me to take her copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy down from the kitchen shelf where she kept it, and read the passage marked by blue chalk and a slip of paper.
I read aloud:
"Giving does not impoverish us in the service of our Maker,
neither does withholding enrich us"
Then Mom gently explained that she believed -- with her whole being -- that the best way she could serve God, was to trust Him...to trust His tender, unconditional care and infinite supply, not only for her family, but for all families. I didn't know what to say. I just hugged her, and then I helped my little sister find the marshmallows for the hot chocolate.
But that night something softened in me. My anger started to dissolve and my own trust started to grow.
Mom (and God) taught us all one of the most important lessons of our lives that year. She taught us that nothing could deprive us from being generous givers. Neither numbers in a check register, the barometer of an ever-shifting economic climate, a depleted job market, or an empty pantry could inform us about our right to give. We were givers, period. And we were generous givers. It was our divine right.
And the food our family received that Thanksgiving eve, it lasted until my dad's social security benefits started to arrive 6 weeks later.
Over the course of the ensuing 25 years…through my youngest sister's graduation from college…Mom got up each morning, prayed, made breakfast, then set about the task of raising, feeding, clothing, educating, and modeling generosity for her eight children. She taught us to rely on God's love for our support in every situation.
Eventually we all went to college, and one day, many years later, I found myself at that Ivy League dream school sitting in a classroom, having already learned the most important lessons of my life…not from college professors…but from a woman who trusted God. A woman who defended her children's right to be generous with others, no matter what the circumstances.
She is my hero.
Thank you Amy (and the TMCYouth team) for prompting me to rewrite this story...it has been quite a journey down a leafy autumn lane...full of light and gratitude.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone....with unbounded love,
Kate Robertson, CS
Photo is of my mom, Nancy Rosetta Clark McCullough, with her granddaughter, Desi.