It was 2005 and I hadn’t been home for Thanksgiving for thirty years. I hadn’t meant to stay away for so long. It just sort of happened. The years and the expanse of our country made Christmas the easier holiday to trek back to Ohio. In due time, even that holiday became too much with children and work. Summers became the once a year time to return home. But this year was a “no brainer.” After a phone call with my parents on Veteran’s Day I knew I was going home, possibly for my last Thanksgiving with my parents. My hunch was correct, it was the last.
I was well acquainted with the ramifications of my father’s shaky voice. My parents had been children during the Great Depression. I had grown up with dinnertime stories of their losses and fear. It was as if they were still working through their own trauma without the help of a therapist to affirm them of their ache that lingered in deep crevices of their hearts. My sister and brother and I were the therapists that sat quietly and listened while we ate. There was little I could do as their child other than feel guilt for having food to eat, a warm home and two parents living. Little other than grow a heart of compassion.
Veterans Day was not a regular holiday that I would call. For some reason I decided to call and thank my father for his time spent in the Navy in WW II. The phone call chilled me to the bone like an Edgar Allen Poe poem. I was spooked. I could hear the shakiness in his voice that was akin to a siren on a sinking ship. My heart began to pound loudly in my ears.
“Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest home.”
Because of his depressions throughout his life, he was a man acquainted with sorrow. There were times in his life that nothing helpful could be said and only sitting together allowed for a way of saying, “I care.” His weakness enabled me to ask him questions when I met similar roadblocks of darkness in my own soul that stopped me cold in my tracks. We could talk of deep things together.
“All the world is God’s own field, Fruit unto his praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown, Unto joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade, and then the ear, Then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we Wholesome grain and pure may be.”
The flip side of sorrow is joy. Because of his knowing dark depths, he was a man able to see the sun shining more brightly than most people I knew. His joy taught me much about life and gratitude and loving the wild outdoors. We had fun together, played dangerously and delighted in being father and daughter.
When I got to the baggage claim at Port Columbus I picked out his beautiful white hair and bright red Ohio State parka in the crowd. He caught sight of me and leaned back and put both arms up in the air and smiled that smile that has spurred me on through my whole life. From the beginning of my days, I have loved that smile. We walked swiftly towards each other and we met and hugged. With deep sorrow I embraced an 80 year-old man with a 200 year-old gaze that stared back at me deep in his Paul Newman blue eyes. This was the real deal I had dreaded. It was true that his old friend, “depression” had set up camp and come to steal his life away. This time, for good.
“For the Lord our God shall come, And shall take his harvest home;
From his field shall in that day All offenses purge away,
Give his angels charge at last In the fire the tares to cast
But the fruitful ears to store In his garner ever more. “
Once we got home he carried my suitcase to my room and he closed his bedroom door, changed into his pajamas and got into bed. I am still haunted by trying to imagine the amount of strength that must have taken him to pick me up at the airport and greet me at baggage. It was his last trip he ever made to pick anyone up.
Being an outsider often allows for greater acuity. The days I was home were like living in a tomb, but only I could see that reality. I would escape the gloom and run on the cold icy sidewalks of my childhood where the air was clean and bountiful. As I ran past my friends’ childhood homes I remembered times when my father would take us to the Scioto River to ice skate, to sail, or to water ski. The sledding, the slumber parties, and the kick the can games echoed in the crevices of my heart. I dreaded returning home and opening the front door and seeing the fear in my father’s old, vacant eyes.
On Thanksgiving morning I baked the pies and was grateful that my father got dressed and opened the driver’s car door and got in. My mother and I acted normal as we drove to my husband’s mother’s home to pick her up. We got to my sister’s home and my brother and his family were there too. There was a kids’ table but I sat with the adults choking down the same Thanksgiving meal that began way before my childhood. The Thanksgivings at my grandparents’ Ohio home with 22 cousins and fourteen aunts and uncles were oddly present in my sister’s dining room. The circle was closing and the cold, gray day of Thanksgiving was like so many others but yet oh, so gravely different.
Another Thanksgiving is coming and many have already passed. My father, his brilliant blue eyes shinning will not be seen at our table, but he will be there. My daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons, and my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter will not be with us, but the table of my imagination is large and as I look at all who sit at our table, I will in the quiet of my thankful heart sing:
“Even so, Lord, Quickly come, Bring the final harvest home;
Gather thou thy people in, Free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, In thy presence to abide;
Come, with all thine angels, come, Raise the glorious harvest home. Amen.”
Hymn by Henry Alford (1810-1871) sung every Thanksgiving Sunday at The United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio.
Becky Allender lives on Bainbridge Island with her loving, wild husband of 36 years. A mother and grandmother, she is quite fond of sunshine, yoga, Hawaiian quilting and creating 17th Century reproduction samplers. A community of praying women, loving Jesus, and the art of gratitude fill her life with goodness. She wonders what she got herself into with Red Tent Living!