A small, polite rap on my door signaled the arrival of my son's ride back to St. Louis, where he will connect with his friend from school for the journey back to his other life. The last inch of over-packed suitcase succumbs to relentless tugging, and, with a quick, commanded hug, he leaves. The dog and I settle back into our empty-nest routine, while the cats scurry across the dining room floor, foraging for crumbs.
The final count at last evening's Thanksgiving meal hit 24, counting three well-behaved, adorable children. Several invited guests suffered illnesses preventing their attendance, but last-minute additions kept our number from sliding below 20. I have a reputation to uphold, after all.
Every wine- and water-glass served duty, several twice, and had everyone attended, I do not believe the silverware would have held. The buffet groaned under the bounty of my friends' contributions; Katrina's gravy glistened; Caroline's chocolate cake beckoned; Sheldon's whipped potatoes shone.
In our customary way, we rounded the table, youngest to oldest, acknowledging something for which we gave thanks. With no giggling pre-teens, we heard only serious comments. I'm thankful for family. . . for friends. . . for the survival of my business. . . for being here. My tears flowed; I cannot help myself. As soon as the prodigal son spoke, I began to tear: I'm thankful that I came home this year, after missing last year. As am I, my beloved; as am I. For everyone who is here, and everyone who could not be.
The near-perfect boyfriend and his sweet sister together put a major dent in the dishes. And let it be acknowledged here: Valiant always, Jim stood at the sink until the last plate had been washed, dried and put away. He wins the 2010 Holiday Clean-Up Award. I slept a hard eight hours; and then, at 6:30 this morning, the knock on the door, and my son slipped away as quickly as he arrived.
I have folded the metal chairs, and taken the linens down to the laundry room. I've collected the rag-tag glasses scattered hither and yon, and a spoon or two from the floor beneath the dining room table.
I do not need to close my eyes to remember other Thanksgivings. We have always said the "Thankful-Fors"; we have always had clover leaf rolls; we have always crowded as many as we could in my modest dining room, and put the younger set at a folding table, on folding chairs, with their own gravy boat and basket of bread.
In my youth, sixth of eight, I clutched my Thanksgiving Day chore and awaited the timer that would call each Corley to task. Mother doled out slips of paper on which your name and duty had been carefully noted, and at the sound of the ding, you left the relative with whom you were chatting and rushed into the kitchen to help with final preparations, pigtails flying, patent Mary Janes clicking on linoleum. The laying of the plates; the filling of water goblets; the arranging of chairs. Eight Corley children; eight jobs; and then, with the raising of the dinner bell, a call to supper.
I have known Thanksgivings in other settings. One year, house-sitting in the mountains, I ate Cornish hen cooked in a pot-belly stove. The year before my son's birth, his small self quickening within me, I rode the train to St. Louis in an ice storm and sat at my brother's table, unobtrusive, alone in the din of his lively children, next to the priest who later baptised my infant. I cannot remember Thanksgiving of 1991 or 1992. For the last 17 years, I have cooked here at the Holmes house, either on Thursday or a day through the weekend, or both.
We welcome anyone who wishes to come. Our annual dinner started as a place for folks with no local family and hence nowhere else to go, but evolved into a gathering of family by choice. I stand as my guests sit; and hover near the kitchen. I cannot light and eat: my need to be sure that everyone receives what they want or need cannot be sated.
I stand on the porch as each guest departs, and call after their cars pulling away from the curb. Thanks for coming! Be careful! See you soon! As the last Tupperware is burped, and the last napkin collected, and the last half-bottle of wine re-corked and stowed on the shelf, I feel the aching in my muscles, the cramping in my feet, and the slight, heady rush of fatigue rising, drawing my eyelids downward, making my head spin, just slightly.
One bowl slides to the kitchen floor and breaks. Does this bowl have special meaning, comes the anxious cry of the dishwasher. My son carries it toward me, and I ascertain that it is nothing special. "Nothing special" means not touched by my mother's hands, or passed down to me by womenfolk of whose faces I have only fading memory. One day, perhaps, I will view my special dishes as merely being future landfill. But the mish-mash china pieces in my cupboards still remind me of those who have gone home, and I wince at the sound of crockery on tile.
I am tired, now. At ten, I will serve as substitute greeter at St. Andrew's Episcopal church, standing in for the person who left town early to get my son to St. Louis on time to meet up with his friend, and thus, to journey on to Indiana. By noon, I will occupy the desk in my office, preparing for a sad but apparently unavoidable custody trial which starts tomorrow. Although my brain will turn to other, more practical contemplations, in the background my gratitude will still hum.
I am, without question, thankful for all of my beloved friends who gathered in my home last evening. I am also thankful for my siblings, even those with whom I have only infrequent contact; and for my child, who touches my heart; and I am thankful for the hold I have managed to place on health which, though not good, is thus far good enough.
But I am also thankful for those whose faces recede into the curtained corners of my mind. My parents; both of my grandmothers; my mother's father; aunts; uncles; and my brother Stephen, whom I shall forever see as lively, and quick, strolling into any room with radiance and energy.
My friend Paula lost her mother this year; my friend Jane, her brother. Stacey's grandmother died; and there have been others. For all of them, and for myself, I offer not my own words, but those of Antoine de Saint Exupery, which I read at my brother's funeral, and for the comfort of which, I am also thankful.
In this, the 26th Chapter, the Little Prince is preparing for his journey home, and the author, who is stranded in the desert because of an engine malfunction in his plane, has discovered that "going home" for the Little Prince involves the gracious bite of a venomous snake, for the Little Prince's home is far away, and his body too heavy for him to carry. And the author is anxious at the thought of losing his friend, and thus, seeks reassurance from the Little Prince:
"Little man," I said, "tell me that it is only a bad dream--this affair of the snake, and the meeting-place, and the star . . ."
But he did not answer my plea. He said to me, instead:
"The thing that is important is the thing that is not seen . . ."
"Yes, I know . . ."
"It is just as it is with the flower. If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night. All the stars are a-bloom with flowers . . ."
"Yes, I know . . ."
"It is just as it is with the water. Because of the pulley, and the rope, what you gave me to drink was like music. You remember--how good it was."
"Yes, I know . . ."
"And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens . . . they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present . . ."
He laughed again.
"Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!"
"That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water . . ."
"What are you trying to say?"
"All men have the stars," he answered, "but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You--you alone--will have the stars as no one else has them--"
"What are you trying to say?"
"In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night . . . You--only you--will have stars that can laugh!"
And he laughed again.
"And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, 'Yes, the stars always make me laugh!' And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you . . ."
And he laughed again.
"It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh . . ."*****************
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.