She wanted Thanksgiving to be over... God had other plans.
"You doing anything special for Thanksgiving?” If one more person asked me that, I was going to lose it. I just wanted the whole thing to be over with. Like most years.
Thanksgiving had never been the happiest holiday for me. When I was little, it was fun seeing my cousins, aunts and uncles. Then my father left. Thanksgiving dinner became subdued, less a celebration and more a reminder of how my family was splitting apart, not coming together.
Now I was divorced. The past year had been such a downer for me. I’d had to move to a smaller, cheaper apartment. Then my hours had been cut back at my bookstore job. I didn’t feel like being around a lot of people, let alone pretending to be thankful for something. Not this year especially. I just wanted to stay home with my two cats and sleep in. Maybe I’d watch a movie.
If only my well-meaning coworkers hadn’t kept asking, “Linda, what are your plans for Thanksgiving?” At first I’d been honest, but the looks of pity I got were too much. So I changed my reply to a casual, “Oh, I might have a few people over.” That worked better. Nobody pursued it.
Except my twentysomething coworker Jessica. She approached me as we were closing up the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. “I know this is a lot to ask,” she said shyly, “but my family lives out of town. Would you have room for one more?”
I started to grind my teeth. Jessica looked at me all doe-eyed. She was so sweet and innocent. I couldn’t crush her hopes. “Of course, Jessica. I’d love to have you join us.”
Her face lit up. “I’ll bring my mom’s famous creamed corn. How many people are coming?”
I blurted out a number at random and Jessica went off with a spring in her step. I felt like a woman on her way to the gallows. What was I going to do now, when it would be just the two of us with enough creamed corn to feed an army?
As soon as I got home I called friends who lived too far away to bail me out. “Tell your coworker the truth,” one said. “Say you’re sick,” another offered. “Pray” was the third suggestion.
My thoughts were too scrambled to come up with any prayer more coherent than People. Turkey. Chairs. I muttered it, pacing my apartment. Even my cats, who were normally clamoring for dinner the minute I walked through the door, steered clear, alarmed.
You got yourself into this fix, I thought. Don’t expect God to get you out of it.
I fed the cats and rushed out to the grocery store. I threw a 20-pound turkey, a bag of sweet potatoes, an extra-large can of cranberry sauce and a couple of frozen pumpkin pies in my cart. For drinks I grabbed a few jugs of apple cider and I was done.
The total at the checkout made me wince.
“Wow, you’re feeding an army,” the clerk said.
Army? That’s right! Weren’t soldiers lonely on holidays? Not to mention hungry. I lugged my groceries home and called the USO. The man who answered sounded thrilled.
“How cool of you!” he said. “I’ll post a notice about it on our bulletin board.”
My face warmed with shame. I wasn’t doing this out of the goodness of my heart. I was doing it to avoid the humiliation of having Jessica be my only guest.
Where else could I find hungry people who were far from home? A college! St. Mary’s was nearby. Surely they had international students. I called.
“That’s very kind of you,” the coordinator of the international program said. “I’m sure some of our students would love to experience a true American Thanksgiving.”
I dug out my address book and phoned people I hadn’t seen in years. “Let’s catch up over turkey,” I said. I knocked on neighbors’ doors and asked them to drop by. So what if I’d only nodded to them in passing? Or if some of them didn’t speak English?
I even invited a man at work whom I’d secretly nicknamed Gloomy Gus. “I doubt I’ll be able to come,” he said. “I’ve been having car trouble.”
“No problem. I’ll have someone pick you up,” I said.
All too soon it was Thanksgiving morning. Except for Jessica, no one had actually confirmed they were coming. I couldn’t waste time worrying about that, though. I had to get cooking. The only thing worse than having just Jessica and me and a 20-pound turkey was an apartment full of guests with nothing to feed them.
The morning flew by in a blur of mixing, whipping, chopping, basting. And praying. People. Turkey. Chairs. Wait . . . chairs! I had enough to seat eight. I’d invited at least 30.
I had only one option. I ran to the funeral home down the street and explained my predicament to the director. “Is there any chance I could borrow some chairs? You’re welcome to come for dinner, by the way.”
He politely declined but let me take eight folding chairs.
I brought them home and arranged them around the table. Moments later there was a knock on the door. It was Jessica, carrying a veritable vat of creamed corn.
My old friend Judy was right behind her. “I brought my new boyfriend,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. I was about to give the man a hug hello when he said, “The turkey smells great, miss, but I’m just the cabdriver. Gotta pick up my next fare.”
My Russian neighbor arrived and started yakking with Judy. There was no language barrier. All they needed to communicate were enthusiastic gestures and cell-phone photos of their pets.
A Chinese student from St. Mary’s College appeared. After him came a couple of soldiers in uniform. Even Gloomy Gus showed up.
Fifteen guests in all. Everyone was talking, laughing, digging into the food with gusto. Including the cats, who got their own little plate of turkey. And Gloomy Gus, who announced that this was the second-best Thanksgiving dinner he’d ever had, despite the lumps in my gravy. (He wouldn’t reveal the best.)
Thank you, God, for the people, the food and the chairs. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Out loud, I said to my guests, “I’m so grateful you could all be here today. You’ve made this a very happy Thanksgiving.” Then I winked at Gus and asked if he’d be kind enough to pass the lumpy gravy.