Is thanksgiving only a day? Just one week after Thanksgiving, Christmas lights, Christmas lists and Christmas music are here. But thanksgiving is not only a day. Instead, thanksgiving can help us grow spiritually, communally and personally. It brings a heightened understanding of the importance of the people we lean on.
This past month, I used Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed‘s November Prayer calendar, which gives daily prompts to express gratitude to God for a now-departed saint who influenced your life: people who mentored you in your profession, helped you grow in faith, created art that speaks to your soul or embodied the values to which you aspire. Those reflections have increased my sense of being loved and belonging. So, this December, I am giving thanks for people who shaped my life journey and who continue to shape me. What I discovered is that my mother had passed on to me a legacy of volunteerism and caring for people that has shaped my whole life.
My Mother’s Life: An Inspiration
In some ways, my mother’s life is much different than my own. She was a stay-at-home mom, choosing family as a career, whereas I’ve always focused on other careers. But “staying home” doesn’t remotely begin to describe my mother’s life. As far back as I remember, my mom volunteered. She volunteered at my school, which at the time embarrassed my 10-year-old self. She volunteered in our community. For many years, Mom volunteered at a home for children with impairments. It wasn’t the value of volunteering that made her so faithful; it was the kids she grew to love.
She volunteered in our church. When I was in middle school, our church sponsored a Vietnamese “boat” family, Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam by boat in 1978 and 1979. My mom opened our home, and the Dinhs — a husband and wife and their 3-year-old son — moved in with us. They took over a bedroom, and we began to live together as a family, with them teaching us how to make and, more importantly, enjoy Vietnamese food. We helped them learn English. At first, our communication was limited to smiling and gesturing, although they quickly learned English.
Eventually, the Dinhs moved in with another church family, but my mother didn’t stop caring or helping. My mom helped them get their first jobs, which began with teaching them to drive so they could get their driver’s licenses. Then, she helped them fill out job applications and took them to their interviews. They found jobs, and Mom was called in occasionally to help communicate with their employers. Eventually, the Dinhs bought their first home and helped sponsor six of their brothers who were refugees from Vietnam. To this day, the whole family names my mother as their Honorary Mother and Grandmother. My mom invests in people for life, with love and empathy and hard work.
Mom: Shaping and Loving Me
At first glance, my life looks different than my mother’s. I’ve always had a career, and did not stay at home with my four children. I haven’t had as much time to volunteer. But when I look closer at my life, I realize that my mom deeply shaped me. I remembered tutoring kids in reading in sixth grade. And then I remembered Peter, a fellow student with cerebral palsy in my eighth-grade class who I helped complete his homework. And when I take a further step back, my career as a minister and chaplain looks a lot like my mother’s life. It’s only taken me 52 years to recognize and celebrate my mother’s legacy, not only for others but also for me! Mom, thank you for shaping me and loving me.
This holiday season, as you gather around tables to celebrate and give thanks, ask one another to name a mentor, role model or important relationship. When I asked this of residents at Pilgrim Manor, many named family members: parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, family friends. Often their legacy wasn’t passed on by words, but by lives dedicated to certain values or simply to other people — children and grandchildren, spouses and friends.
Ask one another: who has been a role model, mentor or significant person in your life? Sharing our stories creates intimacy and builds community. It might be an ethical will that someone shares or maybe it’s just a memory. Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger tells us in his Ted Talk “What Makes a Good Life?: Lessons from the longest study on happiness” that the largest factor contributing to health and happiness is personal relationships. Our health and our happiness increases when we lean into relationships.
So feast and celebrate, and most importantly, talk heartfully — so that your communion continues to build and strengthen relationships you can lean on.