When Thanksgiving Traditions Include Tragedy


I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was the day after Thanksgiving. We packed up our then two-year-old son and headed to my family’s lake house for a fun weekend with both our families. Since the year of our engagement, we had a made it a tradition to meet my parents and siblings and my husband’s parents and siblings on the Friday after Thanksgiving out on the lake. It was a wonderful time of bonfires, night fishing, and late night card games.

My siblings and parents live relatively close to one another just a couple hours from the lake house. But my husband’s family was spread out in different states, so my mother-in-law especially loved these special long weekends where all her children and grandchildren were under one roof for a few days.

The Thanksgiving weekend of 2010 was one of the best, and we all left to take our various paths home with huge smiles and warm hearts that Sunday afternoon.

My husband and I had just brought the suitcases and our toddler in from the car when my husband’s cell phone starting ringing. He answered the call, and I could hear muffled but pained noises coming from the phone against his ear. I watched as the blood drained from my usually light-hearted husband’s face. I had no idea what was happening, but I knew all at once that it wasn’t good. He hung up and turned to me.

“We need to pack a bag and go to Louisiana right now.”

He was so calm that it scared me.

I started to protest and asked what in the world was happening. He didn’t cry. He didn’t scream. He simply went about dumping his dirty clothes from the suitcase and packing fresh ones. Just then, my cell phone rang.

When I answered, my husband’s aunt (his mother’s sister) was on the line sobbing into my ear about a car accident—about my in-laws being transferred via ambulance to the local hospital and asking if my husband was okay. I quickly assimilated the information that was being hurled at me and realized that she must have been the one that had just called my husband. She shared with me between sobs that there had been a horrific car accident. Both my mother-in-law and father-in-law had been badly injured. Both were in very critical condition.

I hung up and joined my husband in rushing to prepare a bag to get back in the car.

Before we could back out of the driveway, we got another call.

This time, the sobs were almost unbearable. His aunt had just received updated news. My husband’s mother was no longer living. His father remained in critical condition with a severe hematoma and other injuries.

How could this be happening? How could we be making a more than six hour drive to a his mother’s home town—a place he dearly loves—not to sit by his injured mother’s bedside, but to bury her? It’s not something any child is ready to do. But to face the trauma in such a shocking way is especially cruel.

And now, every Thanksgiving, these heart-wrenching memories come flooding back.

Just as the leaves fall from the trees, the temperatures turn cool, and we get excited about having the kids home from school to enjoy pumpkin pie and hot cocoa, we also face the sadness and the ache in our hearts for a grandmother my twins have never met.

We think of how much she loved family and how proud she would be of our growing family. We think of the joy she would have had sitting with our oldest son who now enjoys playing her favorite game of Skip-Bo.

Usually, her birthday also falls during Thanksgiving week, and the pain is doubled. We recall that her life was cut short just days after she turned 65. There is so much sadness in knowing the children will grow up not getting to know this incredible woman. There is so much pain in knowing my husband wishes he could still hug his mom and make her laugh in delight at his boyish jokes.

But there is also thanksgiving in the legacy she left. There is hope in the values she cultivated in her son that he now passes on to our children. There is joy in knowing that she lived a life of purpose and grace and gratitude every day and that her children knew they were deeply loved by her, their mother.

And yet, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday.

It holds more meaning for me now than it did seven years ago. I still love the autumn weather, the smells of cinnamon, cloves, and pumpkin. I still love afternoons by the fire with warm tea and the evenings playing games around the dinner table.

But now, I also love the memories that we share and the stories that we tell one another as we remember and honor this incredible mother and grandmother who is no longer with us. I love that each year, my children’s wonder about their grandmother grows. They never tire of learning more about the life she lived.

So often as mothers, we focus on building traditions and making the holidays special for our family. But each year, I feel blessed to watch as the memories and the stories create traditions more beautiful than I imagined.

This post is dedicated, in loving memory, to my other mother, Bobbie Lane Tinker.