I begin this piece while pies are baking in the oven. It's a few days before Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season. For us, it's a happy time of year - I enjoy the planning, the shopping, the cooking and baking. The house smells like someone opened the kitchen door to heaven and there's an almost constant smile on my face.
My three large dogs and both cats are on "food alert." They're relegated to the family room rug but are as close to the kitchen as they can get without getting under my feet. They're waiting for "samples," and I'll drop a few in their bowls in the far corner of the breakfast nook. They'll leap over each other to get those snacks and then retreat to the family room until I give them more - a most attentive audience. (The outside dogs sit on the other side of the glass door watching me. They'll get treats, too.)
The various aromas draw my husband into the kitchen periodically. He doesn't take orders well... I can't relegate him to the family room. He also helps himself to "samples," but he also hugs me while I'm stirring something or drops a kiss on the back of my neck. It's nice. I recently told a newlywed to forget about expensive perfumes.
"Just put a few drops of vanilla extract behind your ear; he'll follow you anywhere and kiss you constantly."
We're expecting a large crowd - sailors and marines and "normal" folks. There will be plenty of food, all the trimmings, a dessert buffet and much camaraderie. The guys will talk football and "special ops" and probably politics. The ladies will discuss Christmas plans, the upcoming festivities at the Navy bases in the area and the Christmas care packages we'll send overseas the week after Thanksgiving.
It will be good to see everyone and enjoy their company and as always, count our blessings.
We'll be missing a few people. This time last year, several of our guests were deployed shortly after the holiday. We haven't heard from them since they left - no letters, no phone calls, no email.
Over the past year, worry has turned into a numbing hum, ever present in our minds. There's nothing we can do but wait and hope for the best. I'm not Catholic but when I pass any one of the area's churches, I frequently stop in and light a candle anyway. I figure God is God whichever church one visits. No disrespect is intended - only a longing hope.
One marine, in particular, is ever on my mind - Bull. There's a place waiting for him at our table.
When I was a lot shorter I ate Thanksgiving dinner at the mission house. I don't remember the turkey but there was a lot of sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, too, plenty of warm rolls and too much gravy over everything. Alli and I used to go back for seconds and thirds... we stuffed a lot of the food into napkins to eat later or share with a couple of folks who were too proud to eat at a shelter. The best part of the meal was the pie, of course. Alli favored pumpkin and I ate the apple. In the early evening we'd go over to Molly's Coffee Shop and no matter how busy she was, she always put a big piece of pie in front of us, top it with ice cream and pour each of us a large glass of milk. What I remember most about those early Thanksgivings is a day filled with food, a day in which Alli and I didn't go to sleep hungry.
Spoke to Max this morning. He and Vi and Glory are hosting a special turkey day feast for a few friends, some of whom I remember from my hungry days. There's Jacob, the man who used to own a shoe repair stand. His wife of 55 years died last year and Jacob is lost without her. Glory will put a napkin at his throat, pat his hand and sit beside him to make sure he eats enough. Marty, everybody's uncle in the old neighborhood, will bring his daughter and his ancient collie. The dog goes to work with Marty every day, sitting at his side while Marty sorts newspapers and magazines in his little kiosk near the downtown skyscrapers. Glory will make sure the collie gets something to eat, too.
Vi will be the perfect hostess. She's Savannah born and raised and has the manners of a genteel woman. Her southern drawl can charm you without you even noticing and make you feel like you're the most important person in her life. She's invited May Belle and WildCat Wilhemina, two of the ladies of Max's acquaintance back in the days when ladies of the evening were an everyday event in their lives. May Belle moved to Chicago from the seedier side of St. Louis and thought she died and gone to heaven when she discovered Max never raised a hand to his "ladies." Cat "pimped" for a few years but she wasn't good at it - her "ladies" moved to Max's stable when he bought her out. She went from pimping to running a backroom parlor card game. It's by invitation only, the stakes are high and she's had more than a modicum of success. She tells the best stories about folks you might have heard of. I don't know if any of them are true but she's a great storyteller.
Max invited a few folks I know and some I don't know or don't remember. Sarah Jean Marie Hale Jefferson will be there along with her husband, John. Sarah Jean Marie's father, Abraham, died recently. He was one of Max's oldest and dearest friends. Max reminds me he's getting up there in years and because of that, he's eating as much pumpkin pie as he can sneak when Glory and Vi aren't looking.
"You still sneaking a cigar, too?" I asked, knowing his fondness for good tobacco.
"Yeah, I am but doncha be tellin no one, ya hear me?"
"I hear you." I smile to myself. Cowboy's been sending fine cigars to Max for a lot of years. He mails them to a post office box that Max hasn't mentioned he owns. He doesn't want Vi or Glory to confiscate those good cigars.
"We got that big ol box of chocolaty stuff you sent," he tells me. "Glory be happy as a crawfish in gumbo and Vi's been helping herself reglarly."
I sent homemade fudge - 5 pounds of it. It was supposed to last until Christmas but it looks like I need to send some more. Glory has a sweet tooth and Vi is always harping on her to back off but fudge is one of very few sweets Vi can't resist. This makes Glory happy because Vi eats as much of it as Glory does. Max doesn't have a sweet tooth but he sure does like his cigars.
When I lived with them, Thanksgiving was a huge feast. Dinner was set up in an abandoned building on the outskirts of downtown. Max supplied most of it and Glory cooked most of it. Quite a few tall garbage cans were lit, the fires keeping us warm.
Lots of oddly dressed folks came to eat at our makeshift table - ladies of the evening, their "men," some of the street people and a few plain old "down and out" folks that were too proud to eat at a shelter. They were generous despite their poverty, bringing bottles of wine and some hard stuff, boxes of chocolates and here and there, a few oranges or cookies, half a chicken, cooked pasta, rice and beans and once, I remember spotting a carafe of coffee someone must have taken from a restaurant. None of them had a lot to share but all brought their gratitude and their warm friendship.
I remember a lot of laughter and I remember Grandpapa Cooperman stopping by to drop off a bushel of fruit. I also remember Max asking John O'Shea to say grace. John would stand, the homeless man's long woolen scarf was wrapped around his neck and flowed down his back. He always sang "Amazing Grace," the voice of an angel come to earth to bless us with his song.
Growing up, life had more than a few rough edges but in spite of it all, it was also filled with so many blessings.
Thanksgiving has come and gone. Lots of good food and lots of good company. Sadly, there was an empty chair at my table; we still haven't heard from Bull. Spoke to his mama and wished her well. Both of us have turkeys in our freezers waiting for him. As soon as he walks into his childhood home - no matter the day - she'll whip up a Thanksgiving feast for her only son. And when he's had his fill, they'll go to church and thank their God for bringing him home.
When he walks into my home - no matter the day - I'll fill the table with all his favorite foods, sit across from him while I sip a cup of coffee and watch him eat. Tonight I'll go to church with Cowboy. While the giant squid kneels and says his "Ave's," I'll light another candle.