Thanksgiving Dinner at Our Place

Thanksgiving at a chain restaurant? I was mortified!

- Posted on Nov 9, 2014

An artist's rendering of an angelic Shoney's waitress

Centerpiece. Place settings. Tablecloth. Thanksgiving was days away, but everything had to be just right. This year the gang would be coming to my house—my sisters, my brother, my nieces and nephews, my parents.

I’d been testing recipes for weeks and finally had the menu set. Tomorrow I’d start my cooking. I was setting up little miniature pilgrims around the cranberry dish when the phone rang. It was Dad.

“Change of plans,” he announced. “Your mother and I are taking everyone to Shoney’s for Thanksgiving.”

Obviously I’d been working too hard. I thought my dad said we were spending Thanksgiving at Shoney’s.

“Seven o’clock reservation. You’re going to love the place!”

I hung up stunned and mortified. I was going to spend Thanksgiving at Shoney’s? Me, the woman with a collection of decorative gourds and multiple recipes for pumpkin pie. It was unthinkable!

Mom and Dad never ate out much in the old days. But now that both of them were in declining health, cooking was difficult. Dad had been mentioning the local Shoney’s a lot lately, and the people who worked there.

“Oma called us at home last night,” Dad reported one day. “When your mom and I didn’t show up for dinner she got worried.”

“Who’s Oma?” I asked.

“One of the waitresses,” said Dad. “I’ve told you about her. She always saves potato soup for your mother when they’re running low. She knows it’s her favorite!”

She sounded like a nice lady. Just not nice enough that I wanted to spend Thanksgiving with her eating the pressed turkey and cardboard rolls that were sure to be on the menu.

But Dad had his heart set. So there I was on Thanksgiving, climbing out of a car in the Shoney’s parking lot. Mom and Dad aren’t well, I thought as we headed for the door. This might be our last Thanksgiving together—and it’s all wrong!

“Look, there’s our next-door neighbors!” Mom said, waving to a couple across the parking lot.

Oh, no, I thought, hiding behind Mom. What must they be thinking to see us? How I wished instead of my tasteful dress I’d just worn a billboard declaring: I Offered to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner!

“I don’t know what you’re so worried about,” Mom said, stepping aside so her friends could see me. “They’re not cooking either.”

Dad pushed open the door to the restaurant. Waitresses popped up like toast all around us, begging to be introduced.

“I have a reservation for the big table in the back,” Dad said when he’d shown us all off. “With Sherry.”

My cheeks burned as I followed Dad to the big table—which was really three tables hastily pushed together. Dad looked so proud to have requested a special waitress for the evening. I just knew everyone was laughing at us.

Sherry, our waitress, arrived in uniform—and a big blue badge that said “Have Thanksgiving Dinner at Our Place.” The minute she saw Mom she took it off and pinned it on her like a corsage. “For your badge collection,” Sherry said.

“Roberta, you remember Sherry?” said Mom. “You two went to church together when you were kids.”

“Nice to see you,” I mumbled, wanting to run and hide.

“Let’s all hit the buffet,” said Dad. With a snap of his suspenders he led the way to the long table festooned with cardboard turkeys and streamers. A waitress patted his silver head as she went past. “You’re looking so much better these days,” she said. “Keep holding onto God.”

“Isn’t she something?” Mom whispered. “And she’s not putting on for strangers either.”

I got to the buffet just as another diner scooped a mound of mashed potatoes on Dad’s plate. “Can’t have you wasting away,” she said.

I studied them critically. I’m sure they’re nowhere as good as Mom’s oyster dressing, which we’d be eating now if we were at home, I thought. I put some mashed potatoes on my plate anyway, then added some steamed veggies. I was surprised to see that the turkey legs looked juicy and tender. I took two.

Dad’s thunderous laughter filled the room. He and another diner were holding up the chow line telling jokes. Back at our table, Dad retold his famous yarn about the time he was playing his fiddle at a flea market and wound up on national television.

“I convinced that reporter the fiddle was the star of the whole bluegrass band,” he said. “They set the cameras right up in front of me!” Dad slapped the table with his hand.

People at other tables had turned around to listen. Now they were laughing too! Well, I didn’t see anything to laugh about. When Sherry returned to fill our water glasses, I kept my eyes on my plate.

“Hey, Tinsel Teeth,” Sherry said, motioning to my sister Rachael. “Remember when I had braces when I was a kid? You wanted them so bad you came to Sunday school with tinfoil on your teeth.”

A lady at the next table burst out laughing. So did Rachael’s two children. “Tell us more funny stories about when you were little, Mom!” one of them begged.

Rachael looked at me, a glint of mischief in her eye.

“Once your aunt Roberta spent a week sewing a green kettle cloth dress with these darling leg-of-mutton sleeves to wear in the youth choir concert. I was so jealous of that dress. So when she was drying her hair for church I snatched it myself and wore it to the concert.”

“You hadn’t counted on those sleeves just being basted in, though!” I shot back. “They popped loose before you got off that platform.”

Rachael and I both burst into giggles. It felt good to laugh, like I was letting out all the tension I’d been feeling since Dad changed our Thanksgiving plans. Maybe we were being a little loud, but the memory of Rachael in those green mutton sleeves was too much.

“My favorite Thanksgiving before this one,” my nephew said, “was the year Aunt Roberta forgot to take out the little bag of turkey parts before she cooked the bird.” I’d nearly died of embarrassment when that happened. Now it just seemed hilarious.

Soon the table was overflowing with funny memories—and desserts. Everyone told a story, each one overlapping and inspiring another. By the time Sherry returned to the table with our bill I’d forgotten we weren’t all back home around the table.

I put on my coat feeling silly—not for being at Shoney’s, but for taking so long to enjoy myself. I looked at Mom, with her big blue badge, and Sherry, the waitress who’d really helped make our Thanksgiving one to remember. If there was an angel at Shoney’s, she was it.

As we got up to leave, the lady at the next table tapped me on the shoulder. “This is my first Thanksgiving away from home,” she confessed. “I wondered how I’d ever get through it. But having you all here was like being with my family.”

I smiled. I actually felt thankful for our change of plans. “Dad,” I said, “we just might have to make this place a tradition.”

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