The last Thanksgiving: As a father's dementia worsens, a family adjusts its holidays

Mackensy Lunsford
Nashville Tennessean

I just got off the phone with my mother. I asked her for permission to share with you a story about watching a parent go through dementia. She gave me the go-ahead. "It might help someone," she said.

This is, somehow, food related. It's holiday-related at any rate, which in our family means food. "If you can't eat it, drink it or read it, I don't want it," was always our joke around Christmas as we gifted each other bottles of bourbon or spent the present money on things we could all eat. Who needs more stuff?

Growing up, I was close to my dad. My mother (and sometimes I) made the weekday meals, but my dad was mostly in charge of the weekends. On Saturdays, he'd work in our tiny backyard in downtown Annapolis, Maryland. It was really just a brick courtyard with the perimeter exploding with flowers. I remember impatiens thrived best there. The single tree we had besides a stately magnolia dropped something year-round, whether it was berries, pods, leaves or winter twigs shaken loose by cardinals and wind. Somehow there was always something to do.

In the evening, the little weatherproof Bose speakers would come on, unless there was a wedding band at the William Paca House two doors over. On those nights, my dad's James Taylor, Van Morrison and The Band records couldn't compete. Still, he'd fire up the grill, and I'd generally station myself out there, too, unless I was joining some of my rather dramatic counter-culturish friends down at the city dock instead.

He showed me how to grill pork chops and burgers, and we'd quibble over whether or not he was cooking the salmon too long. Almost always the answer was yes. He'd expertly grill sausages and steaks and sometimes pork tenderloin. On weekdays, he didn't get home from his Baltimore office until 8. But on weekends he was home at dinner time, and we would listen to music and eat in the narrow dining room of our 1896 Victorian row house. Those were good days. And food was always central.

My mother and father with my daughter when she was still tiny.

It's been almost 30 years since I left that home. My parents eventually moved back to Roanoke, Virginia, to take care of their aging parents. In the last seven years, my dad began to change. At first, his balance seemed off. We thought he was suffering from the vertigo his dad used to get. Then he started to forget things. Small things at first, and eventually bigger things such as the fact that it was Thanksgiving and that his parents had died.

For years though, they just seemed like slips. Senior moments, just part of aging. He still grilled, we still quibbled over the salmon. But sometimes at night, he began to think there were people in the yard. He installed a spotlight. He grew uncharacteristically grouchy one Christmas Eve when I made salmon in the oven instead of on the grill. He refused to eat it. He was becoming a different person. I saw it that night, and I cried.

This Thanksgiving was the first year he really couldn't handle any of the cooking, which was fine because I started taking over most of it about four years ago. But instead of relaxing with the people who had come over to eat, people he had known for decades, he quietly asked us who they were. Even though we shooed him out of the kitchen, he kept coming back, asking how he could help. We asked him to transfer the potatoes into a microwave-safe bowl. He grew confused, moving them from one container to the next and then back again. Eventually, someone took him outside so we could finish the cooking. I saw him out there, standing next to his cold grill. I turned back to the cooking.

In the middle of the night, my dad wandered from bedroom to bedroom, wondering who the people sleeping in his house were. He woke my mother to tell her about the intruders. He was clutching my bag of toiletries, confused. She reminded him they were his children and his grandchildren. We locked our doors. The next morning, she told us that she would no longer be able to host Thanksgiving. That this had been the last one. We understood, and we began talking about the next steps for my father.

I talked to my mother this morning and reminded her I'll be there when it is time for my dad to leave the house they own, a 100-year-old beauty. Their dream house. The "much admired 'Grande Dame' of Raleigh Court," as the listing agent once said. It needs to be sold again. My mother needs to get it ready. My dad can't help. It won't be long until he's not sure who she is, either, she said.

This Christmas, I'll be with my sister, brother-in-law and nephews in Washington, D.C. My daughter and her dad are traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina, to see family there. My parents will be at home. We'll be scattered about the Southeast, and it's anyone's guess the next time we'll all be together. My parents may eventually move to Nashville. It's really all up in the air. This is part of aging, a cycle most families go through. Everyone is confused. No one is sure what to do.

I do know we'll create new traditions this year, because that's part of the cycle, too. My sister and I will miss our parents and our grandparents, just like many other people do this time of year. We are finally old enough to understand the burden of missing family who can't be near us. But I'll love spending time with my teenage nephews. I'll make sure to have enough wine on hand. I'll prioritize comfort, which is why I'm sharing my favorite macaroni recipe here. If you are also in a similar position this holiday — missing the people you can't be with — I hope it will bring you happiness. At least in our family, that's what food is: love.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Baked macaroni and cheese

Hands-on time: 20 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes


  • 1 pound dry macaroni
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 2 cups half and half
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 5 cups grated New York cheddar cheese (about 1¼ pounds)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh chives


Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish with butter.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the macaroni according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook until shallots are translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the half and half and cream and bring to a simmer.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, add the flour and whisk over low heat until fully incorporated, about 1 to 1½ minutes, to make a blond roux. Whisk simmering cream mixture into the roux.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg. While whisking constantly, pour about ¼ cup of the cream mixture into the egg. Whisk the egg mixture back into the remaining cream mixture. Continue to simmer the cream mixture for 1 minute and then remove from the heat. Stir in 2 cups of the grated cheese and the salt until well combined. Fold in the cooked macaroni, an additional 2 cups of cheese and the chives. 

Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the prepared baking dish and top with the remaining cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until bubbly, about 15 minutes. Pull off the foil and bake, uncovered, for an additional 5 minutes. Serve hot.