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The Best Thanksgiving
- Story by Keith Mark

Growing up, my favorite holiday was always Thanksgiving!  As we spent Christmas at my grandparents’ on my dad’s side of the family, we spent Thanksgiving at my grandma and grandpa’s on my mom’s side of the family.  My mom had grown up on a farm, and Grandma and Grandpa still live there.  In addition to the awesome Thanksgiving dinner that Grandma and Mom fixed, Thanksgiving morning always started with Grandpa, Dad and me hitting the fields for a pheasant and quail hunt.  Every year, I couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to arrive!

Mom, Dad and I would always leave Wednesday afternoon when I got out of school. My dad always made arrangements to leave work early that day, and Mom would always pack sandwiches and snacks for the 5-hour ride to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm. Dad always set out our shotguns, shells, vests and hunting clothes the night before, and I would have my bag packed for at least a week. The car ride was always filled with travel games and my mom’s stories of growing up on the farm. She always teased my dad about leaving it all behind to marry a “city boy!”

But this year, for the first time, I didn’t even want to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s. In fact, I didn’t even want to celebrate Thanksgiving at all. Although I was just 12 years old, I knew something was terribly wrong even if my mom and dad didn’t tell me about it. I had been hearing my parents arguing all of the time, when in years past, they rarely had a cross word for each other. My dad was working more hours than ever, and it had been weeks since we sat down as a family to play a board game or work a puzzle which we always enjoyed doing. As I think back all of these years later, I don’t think we had all 3 sat down for supper together since summer vacation.

When Mom picked me up from school the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, she told me she had “good news” and “bad news.” The bad news was that Dad was not going to be able to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Thanksgiving. The good news was that she was going to let me miss school on Wednesday to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s a day early. She then told me that I would have to ride the bus to Grandma and Grandpa’s by myself and she would come down on Thanksgiving in time for dinner. Being a 12 year-old boy and believing at that time I was nearly all grown up, I tried to never cry in front of my mom. But, everything that I had feared over the last several months was confirmed! I just knew my parents were going to get a divorce, and my life would never be the same. I cried! Mom tried to console me, but it didn’t help.

When we got home, my hunting clothes were packed with my other things, and Mom had a lunch already packed. She told me that Grandpa said I could use one of his shotguns, and after I changed clothes, we headed to the bus station. This wasn’t my first solo bus ride as I had gone to Grandma and Grandpa’s many times during summer break, but this time felt so different. When Mom walked me to the bus, she hugged me and tried to not let me see that she was crying. I boarded the bus crying myself.

As the bus headed West, I watched the city turn to suburbs, turn to open fields. I tried counting hawks like we always did but lost interest after 3 of them. I tried to imagine how one day I would own one of the farms we passed, but that didn’t help because I just couldn’t escape the deep sorrow that was drowning me. “Dad’s not going to make it to Grandma and Grandpa’s this year for Thanksgiving” kept echoing in my ears, and the memory of Mom’s tears on my cheek overwhelmed me. “What’s there to be thankful for anyway?” I asked myself.

After an hour or so, I got hungry and opened the lunch sack my mom had given me. Right on top was a folded piece of paper, and I knew right away what it was. It was a note from my mom. Every year from Kindergarten through 5th grade, my mom put a note in every one of my lunches. She had only stopped this year because I told her I was too old for that kid’s stuff. However, after the first week of school, I missed the notes but couldn’t tell her because I didn’t want her to know that I wasn’t as grown up as I thought I was. I looked at the folded paper for a minute then opened it. It said:

“I just want you to know that Dad and I love you very much, and we will always love you. And … you will always be my little guy!”

I folded the note back up and put it in my shirt pocket. I rolled the sack back up without eating and looked out the window, and cried!

Grandpa picked me up, and we loaded my bag in his truck and headed to the farm. He told me that there were a lot of birds this year and we would sneak in a morning hunt tomorrow, but we had to get back by lunch to help Grandma fix dinner because my mom wouldn’t be there to help. As he said that, he looked away, and I’m certain I saw a tear run down his cheek. When we got to the farm, Grandma met us on the porch and hugged me. She told me how much she was looking forward to showing me how to make dressing and pumpkin pie and turkey and … She would’ve kept going except Grandpa cut in and said, “Now, Mom, let the boy get settled in before you tell him all of the work you have in store for him!”

The next day’s hunt was fun but without Dad, we didn’t bag as many birds as usual. By lunchtime, we had 2 pheasants and 4 quail. Grandpa told me he would clean the birds and I should get in and help Grandma. Grandma was always so nice! As she explained to me the secret to her dressing was that she used oysters and that a buttered cheese cloth on top of the turkey was her secret for a moist turkey, I almost forgot about my parents fighting. Almost!

Thanksgiving morning started with Grandpa’s strong hand on my shoulder as he whispered, “Good morning, Boy! Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a beautiful morning, and the hunting should be great.” As I brushed my teeth, I prayed that everything would be okay and that when I got downstairs, my dad would be sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee like he had done every Thanksgiving morning for as long as I could remember. Instead, when I walked into the kitchen, my grandpa was only setting 2 plates of bacon and eggs on the table for us. We ate in silence, and I just knew my grandpa was missing my dad just like I was.

When we got out of the truck to walk the first draw, I said another short prayer. This one was not for me, but I simply said:

“God, I know there are a lot of grownup things that I don’t know about, but please help my mom and dad to remember that they love each other and that you love them, too!”

I felt better after that and decided that Grandpa and I would have a great hunt together.

We had not walked more than 30 yards when a rooster busted out of a patch of tall grass in front of Grandpa, and he dropped him cleanly with one shot. When he picked up the long-tailed rooster, he held it up and said, “That’s how you do it, Boy!” We walked another 50 yards or so when a rooster startled me as he jumped up nearly at my feet. I regained my composure and dropped the bird on my first shot. When I picked the rooster up, I help him up and said, “Hey, Grandpa, that’s how you do it!” We both laughed. By the end of that first draw, we shot, not only those 2 roosters, but 5 quail as well. At 11:00 a.m. when we headed back to the truck, we had bagged 5 roosters and 11 quail. A banner hunting day! But as great as that hunt was, what I will always remember and cherish the most was as we were nearing the truck, Grandpa put his arm around my shoulder and said, “I love you, Boy!” When I looked up and said, “I love you, too, Grandpa!” I’ll never forget the love and pride and saw in his eyes on that long-ago Thanksgiving morning.

When we pulled in to the farm, my dad’s Suburban was parked in front of the house. Grandpa said, “Looks like your mom drove your dad’s rig!” That was the first time that Grandpa had said anything about my dad not coming for Thanksgiving. He quickly added, “Let’s both go in and tell the girls what a great hunt we had, then I’ll go clean the birds.”

As Grandpa and I burst through the door bragging about our incredible hunt, we were both shocked into complete silence. The site I saw that day still puts a smile on my face every time I think about it. Right before our eyes was my mom AND dad standing side-by-side setting the Thanksgiving table together! My mom and dad both rushed to hug me, and Grandma hugged Grandpa. Then, we all hugged each other, and everyone laughed!

After Grandpa, Dad and I cleaned the birds, we all sat down to the greatest Thanksgiving dinner I have ever had. All was right with the world. I was sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the people I loved the very most in this world! Every year since I have had my own family, I try to say the exact Thanksgiving prayer that my Grandpa said more than 40 years ago:

“Dear Heavenly Father! We are so thankful for your love and many blessings. Continue to remind us that Thanksgiving is not about the hunt or the food we eat but is about who we hunt with and break bread with. Help us to always be thankful for our families and friends and to always walk in the path of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.”

Happy Thanksgiving and God Bless,
Keith Mark