On Thanksgiving I drove down to the rural county where my eighty-one-year-old mother and her partner live, and the three of us went to the home of another elderly couple for dinner. This couple is related by marriage to my mom’s partner, and they are all longtime friends. There were four generations of extended family gathering at the house for the holiday—more than a dozen adults and I don’t know how many kids. They do this every year on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and the door is always open for friends and extras like me.
He and my mother have been together for more than a dozen years. She has dementia. Coherent conversation is beyond her, and she needs coaching with basic tasks. The two of them live out in the country on a dirt road, and he looks after her day in and day out—cooks her meals, pays her bills, tends to the dog, and never goes anywhere without taking her along or arranging for someone to sit with her.
Our hosts also live out in the sticks, but we had to drive through a small town—the county seat—on our way. At the main intersection, there was a man holding up a sign that said, “Equal Rights for Whites.” It said some other things as well, but that was all I could decipher as we sped by. Mom did not appear to notice him. (The county is more than 90 percent white, and all the current officeholders are white. The poverty rate is comparable to Nashville’s, but who’s poor differs. Children are disproportionately poor in both places, but in this rural county, the elderly are significantly more likely to live below the poverty line than their urban counterparts.)
When we got to the modest house, everyone greeted Mom as if she were long-lost kin. Lots of hugging, and “I love you,” and so on. They were all sweet and welcoming to me, too. Most of them had never laid eyes on me before. Inside, the spread of turkey, ham, and side dishes took up every inch of counter and stove space in the kitchen, and the desserts filled a buffet table in another room. We loaded up Styrofoam plates and filled plastic cups with soda or water, and everybody found a spot to sit wherever they could. Mom and I settled at one end of the dining room table.
At the other end, a grown granddaughter, who is disabled and doesn’t speak, sat in her wheelchair. Her mother pinned a towel around her neck and fed her before turning to her own meal. Her father (I think—it was hard to keep track of kinship in the crowd) came over at one point and leaned down to speak to her in a quiet, loving way, as you would to a small child. She didn’t seem to respond to him, or to anybody, but everyone talked to her as if she could.
Likewise, people spoke to my mother as if she were unchanged from the woman they’ve known for years. There were moments when I could tell they struggled to converse with her and were saddened by her confusion, but her old friends in no way shunned or ignored her. She was clearly happy to be there among them, and she said over and over again what wonderful people they are.
There was no talk of politics, race, or religion within my hearing. I believe there was some conversation in another room about crime, but all I caught was one of the men saying, “I never worried about getting shot there,” or words to that effect. At least, I think that’s what he said. I was hustling through with pumpkin pie and coconut cake for my mother and didn’t stop to listen.
Here are some things that were discussed around our table:
the new floor in the dining room
the hostess’s homemade jam and where she sells it
the eight-point buck one of the men shot this morning
therapy options for disabled children
the dinnerware displayed in the china hutch
We left with an extra plate of desserts for Mom, and I was invited to come back for New Year’s Day. I didn’t see the rights-for-whites demonstrator on our way home, but I wasn’t looking for him. He didn’t even cross my mind until we were well past the spot where he’d been. Our route took us through a wildlife refuge where there were geese on the water. An enormous red-tailed hawk flew across the road in front of us and disappeared into the trees.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Clothesline School of Writing in Chicago, the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is the managing editor of Chapter 16 and lives in White Bluff.