Family

My Fondest Thanksgiving Ever

A working-class neighbor provides inspiration for a dining-room makeover, and much more, at holiday time

One of my favorite Thanksgivings occurred years ago, but had nothing to do with family or dear friends. Instead, it occurred as a result of a few accidental meetings with a neighbor who liked to go for walks, as I did — which led to blessings from the grace of God, who on occasion seems to grab hold of us and say, “Gotcha!”

It was one of those drearier times in life when one feels adrift, and alone. For me as a mom with a legal background, it was a fight against a few institutional powers-that-be, who in my view stifled my deaf son’s potential in special education — which was anything but “special.” And my neighbor, Julie Smith (not her real name), was beginning to perceive her life as a mother, wife, and hardworking office manager as nothing but pure boredom.

“Maybe you can’t imagine what it’s like to try to make it from paycheck to paycheck in an affluent town like this,” my neighbor said.

To each of us — and for different reasons — Thanksgiving loomed ahead as more of a burden than a blessing.

What we both regularly looked forward to every day, however, was a twilight walk to stretch our legs, get some air, and share our concerns. Our walks back then took place in what was left of northern New Jersey’s century-old suburbia amid late autumn’s fiery, tree-lined streets. Our homes had been built in charming hodge-podge times, when turn-of-the-century middle classes successfully struggled and built to suit a family’s fiercely independent American style.

My friend, however, walked too fast and spoke too little.

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One evening, I realized the subjects of our conversations might have been the problem. She needed something safer — nothing problematic. I didn’t know her that well, but I ventured, “How’s the interior decorating going at home?”

She urgently replied, “I really need to paint the dining room before Thanksgiving.”

I turned and asked her, partly out of my ignorance of her personal situation, “Is that what you really what to do?”

She tilted her chip up and continued walking. “You have a law practice,” she said. “So maybe you can’t imagine what it’s like to work at a boring job, and try to make it from paycheck to paycheck with a husband and teenage son in an affluent town like this.”

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We fell silent again, and I struggled to keep up as she walked briskly. As we rounded the bend, signaling the end of our path, I stopped and gently touched her arm. She tried not to meet my gaze.

I said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” I expected her to push back on this, but she replied with a smile.

Our steps slowed as I led the way to The Missionary of Franciscan Sisters Convent, atop a hill surrounded by ancient oak and pine trees amid gardens aplenty. As I pulled my woolen shawl around my shoulders against the quickening chill, she said, “I’m Catholic, you know. But I haven’t thought about it in years.”

Then she asked, “How often do you come here?”

“Every day. Let me show you why.”

I led her past tall trees to The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, which was surrounded by mounds of glittering green vines and jewel-toned carnations. Then, just as lavender’s twilight-sky closed its hand on the day, she suddenly laughed in delight as the electric burst of tiny lights set the scene aglow in a star-white shimmer.

She began to cry.

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We sat silently for a while in The Grotto, and then continued to walk the grounds to its furthest boundary, where the sisters’ loved ones lay beneath neat rows of white crosses: “Sister Mary Margaret 1900-1989; Sister Mary Clare 1902-1979; Sister Mary Francis 1920-1995 … ”

We met a few more times during the holidays, and then she was gone. A neighbor said she got divorced, while another maintained she and her family moved out West.

My walks to the convent continued and I thought about this friend every day. On what would have been our last year’s Thanksgiving,  I had one of those at wits’ end days with a car engine blown, a computer crashed, and my son in tears at the hands of a town bully.

Nearing the breaking point and not having planned anything yet for Thanksgiving, I slumped on the sofa trying to breathe … in and out, one steady breath after another.

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But all at once, I stopped with a single quick intake of breath, having noticed a slant of light on the end table with its usual pile of bills, catalogs, and junk.  But one item stuck out of the heap. My hand moved towards it — pick-up-stick style. As I gave it a gentle once-over, I suddenly knew: Here we were a year to the day of our last Thanksgiving, and Julie Smith had mailed me a postcard.

I looked at the picture first. It was a bright tropical sky’s horizon magnificently crisscrossed with bands of double rainbows. When I turned it over, I read her missive written in sweepingly artistic script: “I’m here in Hawaii on a Catholic cruise working as a counselor with the elderly. But every time I see a rainbow … I think of Our Lady and you.”

I teared up a little — then suddenly looked at my seldom-used dining room. I realized that redecorating the space for Thanksgiving would be a wonderful idea. With mirrors along one wall, a few colorful tapestries, maybe a new sound system … it was possible.

There would be room enough for everyone we’d invited — to dance!

The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, author, and columnist based in Arizona. 

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