Traveling Between Thanksgivings

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1959. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Route 22a
Ferrisburgh, Vermont

About twenty minutes into our drive to Albany, the kids put on headphones and start a movie. Round hay bales pepper a wide yellow field to the east, casting long shadows beneath a white sun pinned low in the sky. Across the lake, Whiteface, already streaked with snow, towers above the other peaks.

“What’s that say?” Esme asks her older sister, unaware of how loud she’s being.

“A New Hope,” Magny says flatly.

After a long pause, Esme follows up. “What was the old one?”

No one answers.

Thanksgiving, 2014
Columbus Colony Elderly Care
Westerville, Ohio

We forgo our usual Thanksgiving gathering and drive for 2 damn days, braving treacherous winter weather and frayed nerves, just to stand beside the bed of a grandmother who can’t wake up. After spending an awkward hour poking at her soft spotted hands and asking a few parent-stumping Big Picture questions, she asks if we’re leaving yet.

“Sure,” I say.

We gather our things and head for the door. She stops. “Dad, is it ok if I hug her?”

“Absolutely,” I say.

“Will she know?”

I want to lie but the best I can do is, “I don’t know. I hope so.”

She leans in, touches her grandmother’s shoulders, then quickly stands up straight and takes a step back.

“It’s ok, kiddo. You can hug her for as long as you want.”

And then she leans in again and goes for it. All in. I pull out my phone and take this picture. And then I gasp as I really see it, as I see The Picture. The whole thing. The reason we chose to walk through terror, the billions of dead before me, the blinding pinprick, the fact that this mighty girl may someday shrivel in a bed long after I’m gone and in that darkness may desperately but futilely try to say, “Yes, I feel you, you’re holding me and I feel you, I love you, and yes, it was all worth it, every damn second, and thank you.”

Happy thanksgiving.

Cumberland Farms
Fort Ann, New York

I am waiting in line for the bathroom when I get a text from Amanda, who is waiting out in the car with our daughters:

I chuckle, and the tall man in front of me slowly turns around, beard dangling over the top half of his Carhartt jacket. I look up into his narrowed eyes and shrug, he shakes his head, I lower my gaze. His camouflage pants are tucked into cracked boots that are stained and splattered red. I tell myself it’s paint, but I know better.

The cashier puts everything in a white plastic bag and hands me the change. “Make sure you get a free coffee.”

“Free coffee?” I ask, because I want to know.

“Today only.” She smiles. There is a delicate silver line framing her top right incisor. “It’s for Thanksgiving.”

“Well,” I say, sliding the crinkly bag off the counter. “Thanks for giving.”

A woman wearing flip-flops reaches over as she walks past and taps the head of the man standing to my right. He glances over his shoulder.

“Oh. Hey, Beth. How you doing?”

She pulls out a large styrofoam cup from the dispenser on my left and starts filling it with a flavored coffee. A large red rose is tattooed across the top of her right foot. “Me? You know, I look like shit, I feel like shit. You cooking a big dinner?”

“Turkey’s in the oven right now.” He pushes a button on a blue and white box and sugar streams into his cup.

“I usually cook a big dinner, but we’re going to my dad’s this year since it’s definitely going to be his last one.”

Thanksgiving, 2015
Columbus Colony Elderly Care
Westerville, Ohio

The girl is named after the woman’s mother. She opens the woman’s tight hands and finger-spells, over and over, “Magny is here.” The girl traveled for two days to kneel beside this bed and invoke the name that welcomed the woman into this world. The woman doesn’t respond, but I am not really watching her. I am watching everything happen at once, I am watching time arc back and touch its heels before springing back upright. I am watching what I want to be: the kind of father, husband, son, brother, friend who comes to you, undeterred by your response, and reassures you: I am here. I am here. I am here.

Cumberland Farms
Fort Ann, New York

I stop here again, half a day later, because I want something to happen. I am here looking for answers.

There is a man slumped over the small round table near the front window. He sees me coming across the parking lot and bolts upright. His eyes darken as they follow me, his mouth uttering words I cannot hear. When I apprehensively step through the entrance, he leans back and raises his hands as if to surrender. On the table before him sits a ziploc bag filled with discarded cigarette butts and a misshapen styrofoam cup with teeth marks around its rim.

“Good morning,” I hear myself say mistakenly.

He claps his hands together and shouts, “HA!”

No one else seems to notice this whatsoever.

The cashier is now a young man wearing a large hat in the shape of a cooked turkey, drumsticks angling off the top of his head like thick antennae.

“Is the coffee still free?” I ask, because I want to know.

“Yes sir,” he beams. “All day until midnight.”

“Thanks. Great hat, by the way.”

“You too!”

I am not wearing a hat.

“Why are you drinking more coffee?” Amanda asks as I climb back into the car. “Isn’t your stomach killing you?”

It’s true: I’ve been wincing in pain since we left Albany. I can’t argue with her logic, so I don’t.

“It was free,” I say.

Thanksgiving, 2016
Columbus Colony Elderly Care
Westerville, Ohio

“I get sad when I think about all the people like Grandma who could never hear and so never got to hear all the beautiful things like people laughing and singing and music and the sound of water and waterfalls.”

Shelburne, Vermont

Everyone else is asleep. A strong wind off the lake rattles a loose gutter above the window beside me. I look out into the darkness, but there is nothing to see.

I make my way around the house, turning lights off. In the dining room, my mother’s tablecloths are spread over two tables that have been pushed together. Remnants of last weekend’s Friendsgiving still remain: mismatched chairs and candlesticks, a bowl of pine cones, sixteen place cards handwritten by half a dozen children. Cedar branches and vines of bittersweet berries still hang from the long shelves lining the back of the room. As we gathered for dinner that night, Esme stood on her stool at the end of those tables and presented a pair of poems she had made for me — “to help you not be sad because your mom died,” she said.

The end of the rainbow for me and you
We skip and dance a merrily tune
But when people die
They live on in our hearts
But still we are apart

The end of the rainbow for me and you
We skip and dance a merrily tune
But when people die
There’s a storm
But still it is warm

I look around the room, arms folded, and wonder how we’re doing. Are we doing it right? So much of life feels like a careening crapshoot, why should this be any different? Is this what Thanksgiving is supposed to look like? I can’t remember anything about the ones before we started going to Ohio.

“Good enough,” I hear myself say.

I flip off the lights, step into the red hallway that leads to our bedrooms, and stop. I am remembering something. Without turning the lights back on, I drag a chair over to the far end of the shelves in the dining room. My knees crackle as I climb up onto the chair and peer into the darkness of the top shelf. I can’t make anything out, but I don’t need to see what I already know: somewhere under the shadows in the corner of the shelf, there is a red velvet bag, and in that velvet bag is a smooth wooden box, and in that wooden box is my mother, quiet as ever.

She finally made it to our house for Thanksgiving.

“So,” I say, leaning into the void, “what’d you think?”

No one answers.