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On this day, poverty took a holiday

Updated: December 30, 2013 11:47AM

Pineapple upside-down cake was Mama’s specialty. I can still smell the brown sugar wafting through our apartment on Thanksgiving. I see Mama, wearing that contented half-smile of hers, moving gracefully, with a sense of purpose and pride, laying the finishing touches on dinner.

I hated pineapple upside-down cake. But I loved Mama. So I sometimes tried to eat her syrupy cake, which she always mixed with love, even if it was not tantalizing to my taste buds.

Happy times.

My memories are mixed with the cold of those Thanksgivings when the wind sometimes whirred outside our window while the warm scents of chicken and dressing and all the trimmings made me salivate with anticipation. Like a gust mixing a pile of leaves, memories today stir in my mind.

And I remember. Those times when Mama was happy and beaming — more fully present. I remember.

Those Thanksgivings and Christmases — when our poverty and hardship seemed to take a holiday — and Mama somehow always found a way to make the sun shine, no matter how dark our storm.

Despite our poverty, Mama would be filled with a lightness that made her dance and smile and sometimes sing and sashay through our apartment like a schoolgirl. Seeing Mama happy made my heart glad.

And we ate and ate then ate some more. And Mama and my stepfather played Bid Whist, slapping cards into a night filled with laughter and drinking a few cold ones. We kids played games or sat on the sofa, watching the sometimes fuzzy, black-and-white TV flicker way past midnight until we fell asleep. And even the mice seemed to comply by staying inside their holes.

Happier times.

Funny, back then, I thought we had it bad. That everybody else had it good — at least better. I dreamed of suburban Thanksgivings, of a big house, of no poverty and no pain. Of a life filled less with disconnection notices, more with certainty. Of a life more like the Jeffersons’ than the Evans’.

I used to think money could solve our problems. But Mama would always say, “John, if money is your biggest problem, you don’t have any problems . . .”

I can still hear Mama. Her words pop and crackle in my mind like wood in my fireplace. Here lately, I am reminded of how the once seemingly insignificant can become the treasures we someday long for. How precious is a little thing like memories.

Memories. They escape Mama today. They are elusive. They ebb and flow sometimes, come and go, sometimes drift gently — or suddenly — far, far away.

Memories. Alzheimer’s keeps stealing them. And it promises to eventually take Mama — and too many other mothers, fathers, loved ones — away from us as more than 5 million Americans today live with the disease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death and the number of Americans with it projected to reach as high as 13.8 million by 2050 — unless we find more effective prevention or treatment.

Alzheimer’s hurts. It is cruel. Debilitating. Merciless. A thief. And yet, no match for a mother’s love. Or a son’s.

I remember this, with the scent of pineapple upside-down cake, with tears in my eyes, as I embrace my mother. And I am thankful this Thanksgiving for moments, for memories, for Mama.


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