11/27/2014 07:32 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2015

Why Those We Miss Most Will Be With Us on the Holidays

The other day, I said to my husband, "We're losing all the good ones." He arched an eyebrow, but he knew what I meant. With the onset of fall, it seems we've lost some of our brightest lights: Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, the wonderful Wisconsin author, Ben Logan, Vermont's poet laureate, Galway Kinnell, and director Mike Nichols, to name just a few. But my husband also understood the personal undercurrent to my words: my mother passed away on October 11, almost three years to the day that my father passed. With a new chill in the air, it feels as if bodies that have fought long and hard are now readily surrendering; as if they, too, are aware of larger transformations afoot in the world.

That my mother's life was cut short so soon, at 69, by an unwieldy accumulation of white cells that besiege a body with leukemia, seems like poetic injustice. She was a writer, a book lover, and someone who embodied grace no matter what the day brought. She could be a master of the understatement: "I'm feeling a little punk today," she might say, but in those last weeks, as my brother and I struggled to comfort her, she always reached for a hand to hold.

Now that she's been gone a month, I still find myself picking up the phone when I have a few spare minutes to talk. I want her opinion on so many things that I once took for granted: how to help my 6-year-old with his spelling tests; what she thinks about a particular title for a story; why she thinks my husband always rushes to cross a street while I'd rather wait out the last few seconds on the walk light. It's funny, too, how a voice lingers. I can hear her calm tone, always the teacher, correcting my son when he asks, "Can you glue this on really good?" It's well, honey, she'd say gently. Glue this on really well.

One day when my boy was around 3, my mom pronounced, "He's going to be a journalist. He has a special way of seeing the world." I hold those words close to my chest, as if she might have been prophetic, because as with so many things my mother said, her words were freighted with an enviable heft.

My mom, herself, carried a wonderful Midwestern humbleness around with her, like a beautiful, well-traveled suitcase, its worn creases familiar to the touch. The simple things in life were important -- the herons on the pond outside her window, a spray of roses blooming in her garden. But whenever the holidays rolled around, we'd pretend that we had oodles of money and would comb through the catalogs, picking out three things per page that we would buy, if we could. JCPenny, Talbots, The Sharper Image -- you name it, no catalog was beyond our reach.

"Can you imagine," my mother used to ask, "if all these things were actually ours?" She said it perhaps with a hint of wistfulness, but more, I always thought, with a sense of wonder, of what on earth we'd do if such largesse ever happened to land on our doorstep. Curled up under our blankets, a fire blazing while the Wisconsin winds howled outside, we'd conjure up our imaginary lives, our make-believe selves that were no doubt outfitted in smart Talbots suits.

I try to take those stories and memories and weave them into my own mothering as best I can. But now that autumn is upon us, my favorite time of year, I find myself uncertain where to step next. This is the season when I usually fall into the easy, familiar rhythms of family time, of appreciating the splash of color in the leaves outside the window or the scent of wood burning in the fireplace. I worry, though, that this year the season has lost its luster for me.

"It's the year of firsts," a neighbor who has been through his own stretches of loss told me. The first Thanksgiving without mom, the first Christmas without her.

"You need to get through it, but it gets better. It does," he said with a reassuring hug. But it's also the firsts she will miss -- my son's first loose tooth, my step-daughter and step-son's high school graduations -- that are difficult to consider.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I am trying hard to be grateful for all that we have -‒ and not all that we've lost. I know that on Thursday, I will turn on the oven and begin to bake the comfort foods of the season. Nothing fancy, mind you, but maybe an apple pie or my mom's signature sweet potato and cranberry dish. If nothing else, the scents will bring her back to me.

Because when I was first married, my mother sent along a recipe box filled with her favorite recipes, all handwritten in her familiar slanting cursive. It is the one thing of hers that I cherish most, not her heirloom jewelry or a particular photo, but this simple box with its three friendly pears etched on top. In it, I have a piece of her, her handwriting, an occasional Post-it note stuck to a recipe with additional helpful tips. It's as if she's still standing right there in my kitchen, a glass of wine in hand, and we're laughing about something silly we once did.

I can almost hear her responding to my questions: "Don't worry about a first grade spelling test, for Pete's sake. Just make sure Nicholas practices." Then, "That story title's no good. Think of another one." And finally, "Honey, there are some things you have to learn to let go of. So what if he races across the street? Your husband is good man."

Did she know when she gave me a simple box of recipes how much it would come to mean? That it would conjure up her presence in a heartbeat? Talk about boxing up your love forever. But that was my mom. She was my one and only.

While I may not be able to hold her hand anymore, her hand will be in every recipe that guides me during this season of firsts. She's still here. In our meals, our rituals, our celebrations. And as I look through the holiday catalogs, already spilling off the kitchen table, all the rich possibilities we once found together in those pages will come rushing back. I'm sure of it.