Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving: A Short Story

Leah had already tossed two bags of frozen broccoli into her cart and had a third in her hand. She didn’t need more than one bag of any vegetable, and propelling frozen goods did not help the situation. But she decided to buy the additional broccoli anyway. So she had a lot of broccoli? Fine. They'd eat a lot of broccoli. Besides, being in a snit was better than being in tears.

Disappointment coupled with increasing resentment had prompted these little snits for weeks now, and most of the time Leah didn’t even care that her husband was getting more than a little tired of it. “Leah, put down the broccoli,” he would probably say if he were here. “You’re not mad at groceries. You’re mad at life.” He might add that she was mad at God, but she was trying to keep that possibility to herself. 

Help, Lord. I’m not really mad at You . . . very much. But I have been losing control of my emotions. You might have noticed the broccoli incident just now.   

Five minutes ago a photo on the grocery store wall of a family around a Norman Rockwellian Thanksgiving table had been her latest undoing. The photo was so big she could see the color of their eyes, and the woman who was obviously the grandmother in the scene had short salt-and-pepper hair and brownish eyes like Leah’s. Tears would have fallen right then if she hadn’t marshaled resentment to dam them up. The fake family looked so happy, so . . . together, while she and Jim would be apart from their only child and his family, including their grandson, Bradley. Some Thanksgiving.

Why did Alex have to be transferred several states away in September, why had Jim’s work schedule made it impossible for them to jump on a plane and go to them for the holiday, and why had her only sister and her family gone to Disneyworld? Serving the Thanksgiving meal at their church wouldn’t take her mind off her unhappy state for long. She’d spend the evening with a book in her living room, feeling sorry for herself while Jim watched football on TV. She’d rather die than go into the den and watch another family deliriously happy to be together for the holidays in a Hallmark Channel movie.

Leah glanced at her list to decide which way to steer her cart next, determined to get her shopping over with so she could get away from the crowds and any more Rockwell-like photos. As she headed toward the dairy section, two toddlers across the wide aisle caught her attention. They were wearing knitted Elmo hats with flaps that flared out from their ears. Four little hands gripped the shopping cart handle over their heads, and a young woman pulled the cart forward with one hand. 

They stopped at a frozen foods bin, and three-year-old Bradley’s face came to Leah’s mind. The identical twins had the same shade of blond curls, escaping from beneath their hats to frame brown eyes and long eyelashes. The young, blonde mother reminded Leah of her daughter-in-law, though she could not have been more than five two to Leah and Lisa’s taller frames. She wore the expression of a weary parent, and Leah’s focus shifted to the mom's immediate struggle. 

Her first attempt to grip both sides of the turkey had resulted in its slipping back into the depths of the bin, and at the same moment each twin seemed to decide he wanted sole management of the shopping cart. Leah pushed her cart as close to them as possible, stepped to the bin with her own height several inches to the advantage, and smiled. “Hi. That’s a huge turkey. Let me help.” 

“Oh, thanks!” Young Mom smiled, though the weariness was evident in her striking blue eyes. “I’m not doing such a great job by myself, am I? Stores don’t seem to think about short people when they pack these displays.” 

Out of the corner of her eye Leah could see the boys had stopped their shoving to watch the strange woman interacting with their mother. Maybe Leah looked like one of their grandmothers. She reached to join the second effort, and the two women lifted the turkey into the cart before letting it slip to the bottom with a clunk. Then Leah turned her full attention to the future recipients of a turkey feast.

“Who’s going to eat this big guy, Elmo or you?” Leah pointed to their hats, and the boys giggled. 

“Elmo doesn’t eat turkey!” 

“Yeah, we eat turkey!” Their faces shined with delight.

“You do? Well, you help your mom while she’s cooking that turkey, okay?” The boys looked at each other as if confused by the idea that they would be allowed anywhere near an oven in use. 

“Thank you for your help.” Young Mom put her purse into the cart with the turkey and placed one hand on each boy’s head.  

“You’re welcome. I’m not short, but I know what it’s like to corral young children in a store during a pre-holiday crush. My daughter-in-law is living that life now with her three-year-old son. It can be exhausting.”

“Well, I’m sure you’re a big help to her.” 

“I used to be, but she lives a few states away now. We won’t see them until Christmas.”

“Oh. Well, I hope your Thanksgiving is blessed just the same. It’s the holiday that starts Christmas.” Young Mom bent forward as her hands moved to small shoulders, lightly gripping folds of their puffy coats. “Thanks again.” She gently wrapped the boys’ fingers around the cart handle, took position behind them, and maneuvered them all toward the bread aisle. 

It’s the holiday that starts Christmas? Leah stayed put for a moment wondering what she meant. Black Friday? The Macy’s parade, where Santa makes an appearance at the end? Leah was still thinking about it as she loaded her groceries in the trunk of her car. Young Mom had made that statement with a certainty that seemed to go beyond bargain shopping and character balloons.

“There’s that grandma!” The little voice behind her made her turn. The same mom and her twins were at the back of the van next to Leah’s car. “I’m sorry, but at least you already told us you really are a grandma.” 

“Yes, I am—and proud of it too.” Leah hesitated a moment, not wanting to overstep her standing as a stranger. “This is a little weird, but do you mind if I ask you a question real quick about what you said inside, about Thanksgiving and Christmas? I—”

“Sure. People ask me about it all the time. It’s something my granddad taught us. Let me get the boys buckled in.” Leah finished putting her own groceries in her trunk, tossed her purse into the passenger seat, and waited. When Young Mom returned, Leah handed her bags from her cart.

“My dad’s parents hosted everyone in our family on their farm for Thanksgiving. Granddad always said a prayer something like, ‘Our minds and hearts are focused on Your many blessings today, Lord. But, too, we thank You for the opportunity to begin preparing our hearts to celebrate Your greatest gift of all.’ Then each family put out a nativity scene Granddad made to remind us of that prayer. He was a fantastic woodworker. Anyway, it’s a tradition we wouldn’t give up for the world, a sort of Nelson family Advent starter. An alternative to, well, these days, a Black Friday mentality. I don’t know if that makes sense to you—”

“Oh, it does.” The twins were yelling for their mom now. “Thanks so much. I was puzzling over what you’d said for the last thirty minutes. Thanks . . .”

“Jennifer. And the boys are Liam and Luke.”

“I’m Leah. I’ll take these carts over to the corral. Good-bye, Jennifer—and thanks again.” 

As she drove home, Leah mulled over her attitude for the last few weeks. What had she been thinking? How had she let disappointment and resentment push aside the attitude of thanksgiving she’d always tried to cultivate? She had the blessing of family, a blessing not everyone had. They might be apart for Thanksgiving, but they would be together at Christmas. The new separation still hurt, but letting her feelings override gratitude had been . . . no way to live!

She needed to apologize to Jim and tell him about Jennifer. She’d tell him she thought the granddad’s prayer would breathe the hope of Christmas into their Thanksgiving Day, starting a true Christmas right then, more than anticipating being with Alex and his family. Her husband might wonder if her attitude change would hold, if Leah thought Jennifer had been some kind of Hallmark Channel angel sent from God, if three bags of frozen vegetables for two people should arouse grave concern. But God woke up hearts all sorts of ways, and hers suddenly felt wide awake.

She also had a creche to get down from the attic, and for sure she needed to look up some new broccoli recipes.

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