“Be thankful,” Mama told me every Thanksgiving of my childhood.  She’d stand at the table chopping onions, celery, and peppers for her famous dressing. “We have so much to be thankful for.”

Up to my elbows in dish water, I had my doubts. Mama used every pot, pan, and utensil in her ample kitchen for her holiday dinners, and my job was to wash them so she could use them again if necessary.  

“Is Aunt Beatrice coming this year,” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Now, MaryAnn, you know she is,” Mama said, shaking her paring knife at me for emphasis.  “She’s family, and whether or not you like all her complaining, she’ll be here, and she’ll be complaining as usual.  We’ll make her welcome, nonetheless.  That means you, too, if you know what’s good for you.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I wouldn’t be rude to her.”

I understood her well and I understood very well what was good for me.

Mama pulled the pumpkin pies from the oven and pushed the turkey and stuffing in. As she peeled the red rind from the hoop cheese, she dropped the macaroni into boiling water.

“You could show a little sympathy for a sick old lady,” she lectured me.  “Any of us could be in her condition some day.”

“If I am, I hope I won’t sit around whining about it all the time.  She doesn’t speak; she whines. All the time.  I’ve never heard her speak when she wasn’t whining.”

“Stir those ford hooks for me,” Mama ordered, pointing with the grater this time.  “Those are the ones we put up last summer especially for Thanksgiving.  I’ve got some more held back for Christmas.”

Mama cracked the oven door to glance at the turkey and the smell made my mouth water.  

“Let me see now.  I still have to make the pecan pies.  Your daddy loves them.  Hand me that bottle of Karo syrup.  You know all families aren’t like ours.  Aunt Beatrice enjoys visiting with us.”

Mama whisked eggs and dark syrup together in the large bowl. Her homemade pie shells sat ready on the table.  Carefully she added the pecans we’d picked up under our trees and shelled around the fireplace the last few nights. 

“Just be patient with her.  You’ll understand one day.  I’m going to sit down for ten minutes.  I’ve been up and cooking since 4.  You have those dishes caught up when I get back,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron.  “It’s 9 o’clock now and I still have a lot to do before everyone arrives.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alone in the fragrant kitchen, I thought about Aunt Beatrice and racked my brain to see her good side that Mama saw.  The minute someone made the mistake of politely inquiring about her health, Aunt Beatrice would take her whining stance and reply, “Well, honey, I ain’t doing so good.”  Then for the next 30 minutes or so, she’d elaborate.  Her gallbladder had stones, her left leg was swollen, and she’d had pink eye back in June, along with an ingrown toenail.  Her right ear was infected, she’d dropped a pot on her foot, her ribs had been hurting and she was fairly sure she had pneumonia.  Her sinuses drove her wild and she hadn’t slept in a week.  On and on and on she went until some new victim walked into the room to ask, “How are you, Aunt Beatrice.”  Then she’d start all over.

Mama insisted that Aunt Beatrice really was sick, and maybe she was.  I don’t know, but I do know that she lived to be 94, complaining every step of the way.

I learned something from Mama’s lectures though.  We must be kind to family and to other people, too, for that matter.  As my family gathers every Thanksgiving, I am thankful for every single one of them despite their idiosyncrasies. The love flows freely when we get together.

But I learned something from Aunt Beatrice, too. When my shoulder throbs and my knee creaks or my head starts to ache as I slide the turkey stuffed with Mama’s dressing in the oven, I just grin and take an aspirin.  

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.  Be thankful for and love your families.