Many of the Thanksgivings and Christmases of my boyhood were spent in Huntington, WV. Both sets of my grandparents lived there, as did a wide circle of other relatives. On the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, as soon as Dad got home from work, we’d pile in the car, and he’d drive through the night.
We did the same thing on Christmas Eve. Mom and Dad would “encourage” my sister, Pam, and me to sleep on the journey by telling us that Santa Claus was in flight, and he wouldn’t likely come to 1137 West Fifth Avenue in Huntington (where our paternal grandparents lived) unless we were fast asleep in the car. Even then, it seemed like a wildly illogical argument, but I never challenged it, because I didn’t want to jeopardize anything about Christmas morning. Besides, as I later learned, there is no logic, only magic, when it comes to Santa Claus.
When we’d get to my grandparents’ modest home in the wee hours of the morning, my bed was a pallet of quilts which smelled faintly and sweetly of cedar; those blankets were cold in a welcomingly warm way. Memories of those make-shift beds conjure up “home” for me.
Family and food were, of course, central to both holidays. On Thanksgiving, there were football games to watch and naps to take. Even if the air was chilly, I’d end up outside with some of my cousins, throwing a football or playing basketball in the parking lot of the Grace Gospel Church or playing made-up games along the railroad tracks. Sometimes, I’d walk on my own, either around the neighborhood or along the Ohio River floodwall which wasn’t far from my grandparents’ house. I especially liked walking on the floodwall when it was snowing.
We shuttled back and forth between the homes of both sets of grandparents. My mom’s folks lived in East Huntington, on Norwood Road. At their house, there was an apple tree which I loved to climb, an “out-building” to play in (not an outhouse; that was my great-grandparents who lived further east!), and my friend, Jimmy, who lived across the creek.
At both places, time slowed down, laughter increased, and lots of stories got told. My favorite stories were the ones repeated year after year, especially “origin stories,” stories which accounted for how and why we were who we were and which kept alive the memory of people who had died. I especially liked it when pictures, grainy black and white snapshots with the date printed on the white and wavily cut border, accompanied the stories.
I’m now considerably older than my grandparents were when they welcomed us to their homes when I was a boy; and, tomorrow, I will gather with Anita, Amanda, Robert, Eliot, whoever the kids have invited, and at least three dogs, to celebrate Thanksgiving. After nearly two years of upheaval, change, and transition related to my illness and ongoing treatment, I cherish more than I can say the times when we are able to be together.
And, I’m aware, more aware than I’ve ever been, of how gathering around a table to give thanks, to share a feast of love, and to tell stories which remind us who we are is at the heart of what it means to be “church.” We celebrate Eucharist—the lavishly-given bread of life and cup of salvation–listen to the Scriptures which call us back to our truest and deepest identity as God’s children, and remember that glad Love is the heart of all things.
I am thankful.