Yesterday, I stopped at Subway to pick up a sandwich for my daughter. In line behind me stood a young policeman. Something about him reminded me of my grandson Jacob, and I immediately knew I wanted to pay for his meal. He protested when I told the cashier to add his total to mine, until I handed him one of the random acts of kindness cards I carry in my purse. “In honor of my grandson,” I insisted. Reading the card, his eyes softened. He nodded, thanking me.
I cried all the way home.
Why am I crying? I initially wondered. The goodwill gesture was a simple one. Not terribly expensive or elaborate. I usually felt lifted through performing random acts of kindness in memory of our sweet boy. Why was I crying?
Then it hit me.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” the young man had called after me as I turned around to leave. Happy Thanksgiving.
I was going to be alone on the holiday. Several of my children were scheduled to work, another lives in CA. Since I have to go into work this weekend, we’d all agreed we’d wait to get together in December when Emily visits Iowa with my grandbaby Tommy.
But I wasn’t crying because I was going to be alone.
The tears came because I can’t fix the holidays and make them the way they used to be. Everything is different since David died in 2012 and Jacob the year after. Holidays aren’t the same. I can’t give my children back their dad or repair the deep wound of child loss my daughter and son-in-law live with daily. To make matters worse, I moved away from the two-story home that served as a gathering place to a tiny house an hour or more away from children and grandchildren. Gatherings aren’t as easy or convenient. I can’t make holidays what they were. I can’t fix what was irrevocably broken by loss.
With the unexpected day off alone, I decided to go through letters my mother had written to me, organizing them into binders like I’d done with the letters she’d written to my grandmother. It was the best thing I could have done.
Mom didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving 1978? I’d always imagined my mother making a big deal out of Thanksgiving, memories of a white tablecloth, fine china, and candles on the table. I can’t recall whether any of that happened on Thanksgiving 1978, or if there was turkey served, or a duck or goose my father had raised. What I can say with some certainty is that I came home from my first semester at college to a family that loved me. And, evidently, my dad didn’t care whether any plans were made. He’d reassured Mom, told her not to worry about it.
Thanksgiving isn’t about the food, the fancy china, tablecloths and candles. It’s about family, and I have family to be thankful for, whether I see them today or not.
Then there is this letter, written in November 1990:
More than five years after Dad’s death in May 1986, my mom was keenly feeling his absence. Much like we keenly feel the absence of David and Jacob.
What can I do about that?
It’s true I cannot bring them back. Cannot make everything the same. But there is something I am determined to do. I can be a better person because of them. I can honor them through my actions. Live a life they would be proud of. Do good in their name. Give a stranger a sandwich.
December remains a tough month for me. There is that heightened awareness of loved ones missing from the festivities and then the date of my grandson’s cancer diagnosis (eight years ago today). For some reason, I really needed a God-story this month. One like that December day in 2015, when a former junior high teacher, Robert King, delivered a special package to my workplace.
I was experiencing a particularly dark time back then. Having my mother’s beautiful statue come to me forty-five years after she carved it just when I needed it was an answer to a prayer. Michael the Archangel has been proudly displayed in my home office ever since, serving as a symbol of God’s protection.
Saint Michael came with me to work yesterday, in anticipation of today’s presentation, “Dark Night to Daybreak,” at Shalom Spirituality Center’s Winter Breakfast. Of course I had to explain the presence of the wooden angel to my co-worker Neal. Shortly after I told him about my artist mother and the meaning of the statue in relation to my presentation, a woman appeared in the adjacent office doorway.
“Is there a Mary Potter Kenyon who works here?” she asked. Our office administrator, Susan, pointed her in my direction.
“You don’t happen to be related to an Irma Potter from Earlville, do you?” she asked, and when I told her Irma was my mother, her face brightened and she grabbed my hand to clasp it in hers.
“I loved your mother! She was in the Ruth Suckow Association with me. I used to give her rides to meetings and we’d have wonderful conversations in the car,” she gushed. She gave me her name and suggested we go out for coffee sometime. After she left I looked over at Neal.
“Do you have any idea how extraordinary that is; that you would be talking about your mother and that woman would show up?” he asked.
This morning I spoke of my mother, David and Jacob, as well as the hope and light I found in God’s grace during the winter of the soul that grief brought. I unveiled the statue at the appropriate moment, hearing gasps of awe. When an older woman approached me after the speech, I wondered at the tears in her eyes.
“Are you Irma Rose’s daughter?” she asked.
“Yes, my mother was Irma Rose Potter from Earlville.” For the second time in two days my hand was grasped…one soul recognizing another. “You knew my mother?”
“I was your mother’s best friend in school. Until Irma Rose Weis came to our school, I was the only girl in a classroom of 13 boys.”
What is your name?”
“Edna. Edna Ginder.”
Just one other girl in Mom’s class, and there she was, in the room, as I spoke about mom and miracles? It was my turn to gasp. We reached out to hug each other at the same time.
I’m not sure how many times we hugged as I recalled other things; how I was with Mom when the Hospice team visited her for the first time in October 2010; Amy and Rose. Amy was Mom’s artist name and Rose was her middle name. When Mom heard the name of the nurse assigned to her care, she’d grabbed my hand in excitement. “Edna? My best friend’s name was Edna!” Mom had felt as though God himself had orchestrated this team who would companion her through her final days. Which of course, he had.
“It brought her great comfort to discover her nurse’s name was Edna,” I told her childhood friend, whose tears now flowed freely. We promised to get together soon for coffee and to talk about the young Irma she’d known and loved.
“Two women in two days who knew your mother,” my co-worker remarked when I told him of meeting Edna. While you were working on a speech about your mother and had brought her statue to work. No one can tell me that is a coincidence. That’s God.”