AWAI Writing Challenge Honorable Mention:
A Surprise Thanksgiving Guest
On this and every Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my parents’ infinite generosity and openness, which is what makes it the most memorable day of the year in our family. And their gracious example has rubbed off on me, as you shall see …
I attended a University in Billings, approximately 150 miles from my home town of Miles City, Montana. Thanksgiving break was always something we hungry college kids looked forward to since we existed mostly on soup and sandwiches. It was fun to go home again, to inhale the aromas of Mom’s baking from her days and days of preparation, to see old chums who decided to linger in what I considered to be the waste-land of Miles City – and to let them know I actually had the temerity to leave.
Miles City is an old cow town. While it had its charms in the old days, when rodeos were wild and raising cattle and wheat was somewhat lucrative, it held no promise for me. I dreamed of Paris … London … Madrid … Exotic, cosmopolitan places beyond the wide, boring horizons of the northwestern plains.
The particular November Thursday morning I have in mind was in 1983. I boarded the greyhound bus from Billings to Miles City, looking for a seat next to someone who wasn’t a horrible, grizzled drunk – or who wasn’t an old prune with nothing compelling to offer in the way of conversation. (I was not interested in knitting.)
Halfway down the isle I spotted an empty seat next to a young man who was reading One Thousand Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Thinking to myself, “not only is he not drunk – he’s kind of cute and he’s a reader.” I quickly plopped down beside him.
The bus pulled out of Billings and headed east on I-94. Reader-boy and I exchanged glances and eventually a “hello” – which is when I detected an accent. Even better! A foreigner! Antonio was from Sao Paulo, Brazil, a student in LA, and was heading for Chicago to meet his sister.
This was going to be an interesting journey.
In his not-so-perfect English, Antonio asked me where I was going. I said I was going to Miles City for Thanksgiving.
“What exactly is this Thanksgiving I keep hearing about?” he inquired.
Obviously he had not been in the U.S. for long and he was unfamiliar with our Thanksgiving holiday. It suddenly occurred to me how uniquely American this festivity is and how many people outside the U.S. would not necessarily know of it.
So I launched into the history of Thanksgiving – about how it started around 1620 when some crazy, puritanical folks from Europe thought they could eke out a living in the new country, soon learning it was not easy. I told him about the Indians who came to their rescue and taught the striving, starving people to raise corn and vegetables and to trap wild turkey and other game.
When the new settlers found they could survive, they invited the Indians to a celebration feast at the end of the harvest season.
Some 400 years later, in recognition of this feat, Americans take the opportunity to gorge themselves on a menu still consistent to theme: turkey, potatoes, squash, corn, pumpkin, the whole works. I thought I heard his stomach rumble.
When he paused for a moment to consider my explanation, I had an idea. “Why don’t you stop in Miles City for a few hours and join me and my family for Thanksgiving dinner,” I asked.
I could see him weighing the logistics of this proposal. After all, it was an odd invitation.
Could he spare the time to eat and discover this new – to him – American custom? I casually mentioned he could catch the next bus out of Miles City and quickly be on his way, a mere four hours out of his schedule. He agreed.
My mother picked us up at the bus station and I could see her quizzical expression as I stood there with a total stranger, his gear in tow. “Mom, meet Antonio. He’s from Brazil, and he’s having dinner with us,” I announced.
“Great,” she yelled from the car, “hop in!”
Off we went to the heart and home of my large family – five siblings and a flatulent black Labrador. Not to mention my cranky, nearly deaf old uncle Bill who kept shouting,
“Who is this guy? From where? St. Paul?”
In true tradition, we sat down to my mother’s beautifully laid table, recited our prayer of thanks, and dug in. There were probably a dozen conversations going at once, as usual, and we were very pleased to have Antonio with us. It was clear he was enjoying himself, so we kept the wine flowing and the plates piled high with turkey, mashed potatoes, creamed corn and green beans.
It was a meal – and a tradition – to be shared with thankfulness for long-time family and newly-made friends. Later, as Mom filled a paper sack with turkey sandwiches and cold beer for Antonio to take with him, she embraced him. She said she hoped he enjoyed the meal with us on this special day, for which we thank the courageous people who left Europe in the hopes of finding a better way of life.
And to whom we credit the freedom and grace this country gives its citizens.
I don’t know what became of Antonio because I never saw him again. But like me, I’m sure he remembers the day our paths crossed and we were able to share a meal together: Thanksgiving, 1983.
This year, as always, I will be especially thankful for the example of grace and generosity that my parents have always instilled in me and my siblings. Whether it is just us, or whether we have an unexpected special guest, Thanksgiving is a time for sharing and appreciating the blessings of freedom and survival.
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