A little patience can fill a heart with sweet gratitude.

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My mother told a funny story about me as a kindergartner. After hearing a lesson about Thanksgiving at school for the first time, I came home in tears and cried out, “We’re not going to eat the turkey, are we?” Mama tried to comfort me, though she was a bit mystified. After all, I was born on a farm and understood why we raised chickens, pigs, and cows. Farm kids know where food comes from. Prodding me further, she discovered the real reason for my tears. “But, Mama,” I wailed, “if we eat the turkey, who’s going to bring me presents?”

Evidently, I’d confused the turkey with the Easter Bunny, but it was the ideal learning opportunity. What parent could resist explaining that Thanksgiving wasn’t about getting gifts, that it was about giving, sharing, and expressing gratitude? Not my mother. Instead of berating me for being greedy, she declared I was old enough to help fix dessert for the holiday. She got me at the right age, when helping in the kitchen sounded better than getting a basket from a turkey. 

Because we lived in the Deep South, our special-occasion pies were sweet potato—an ingredient harvested and abundant in the fall. (I was full-grown before I tasted pumpkin pie.) Although Mama made caramel-glazed yams every Thanksgiving and Christmas, no one called them yams otherwise. They were sweet taters. A persnickety cook, my mother baked the potatoes (never boiled them) and peeled them hot. Then came my job. She put them in a mixing bowl and handed me the potato masher. Beating the butter into them was more fun than I’d had in a long time. Less joyous was helping with the piecrust. Mama soon took over because I was overdoing it, evidently a mortal sin when it came to rolling pastry. Into the still-warm potatoes, she stirred cream, sugar, eggs, and a bit of mace and then divided the mixture among six pastry-lined pans. When they were baked to a golden brown, I could hardly wait for a taste.

WATCH: You Need Sweet Potato Pie This Thanksgiving

But wait I must. In my childhood home, the kids ate in the kitchen while the adults got the fancy fixings in the dining room. On that November day, I counted relatives, praying for enough dessert to go around. After the turkey-and-dressing feast, my mother called on me to pass out pie. In a hand-smocked dress, I performed my duty nervously, eyes on the prize. In the end, as feared, only one pie was left, which Mama took to the kids’ table. She divvied it up and then said, “Now, y’all say your blessing.”

“Uncle Johnny already did,” I said, surprised.

Mama smiled and replied, “I know, but aren’t you especially grateful right this minute?” 

Her meaning became clear when my cousins and I joined hands and bowed our little heads. Even at such a young age, I knew somehow that our shared gratitude went far beyond a single slice of sweet potato pie.

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