Giving thanks

I’ll never give up American Thanksgiving.

I’ve lived in Canada approaching 10 years now, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to make the jump from Thanksgiving in October straight to Christmas. No offense to the Canadians – I very much love and celebrate your Thanksgiving as I do my own – but there’s nothing that makes me feel less homesick for Alabama quite like cooking, laughing, celebrating and watching football all day as we gorge ourselves into turkey-induced comas with our loved ones every fourth Thursday of November.

I’m not trying to come across as ungrateful – quite the contrary – but it just doesn’t feel right to me otherwise, being the quirky American that I am. Sure, there’s Monday Night Football to be watched on Canadian Thanksgiving, but October is just too darn early for me. Not that my husband ever has complained about celebrating two Thanksgivings. In fact, I don’t even think there’s a sane man on the planet who would dare gripe about that.

But it means so much more to me than football and good eats. And don’t get me started on how Black Friday almost has completely bastardized a holiday in which we should give thanks and be grateful not only for what we have, but for the people we love. It’s about family, friends and sharing. Not pushing, shoving and trampling one another to find the best deals later that same night as people get into their nastiest Christmas spirit.

It’s almost an afterthought – much the way Veterans/Remembrance Day sadly is overlooked – merely a stepping stone to people as they get into their shop-until-you-drop-at-any-cost modes. I can remember when nothing was open, when Black Friday wasn’t the nightmare ordeal it is now, when people valued and cherished those precious few moments they got to spend with the people they held nearest and dearest. It is a time – no, a month – to celebrate those who sacrificed all to protect us and our freedoms as much as it is to celebrate each another.

There were plenty of Thanksgivings I spent alone and still others I just don’t want to remember, but I can tell you the very first time I felt like I had come home, felt like I belonged, felt like I was truly loved. It’s as fresh in my memory today as it was on Nov. 28, 1985. And it’s why I’ll never give it up, no matter where I live.

I was 14, and my biological father and Billy – my adopted dad – hadn’t been together quite one year when we went to his parents’ house in sparsely-populated, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Skyline, Ala. I had met some of Billy’s family before, but I was terrified on those occasions because I thought they wouldn’t like me. Not many people did at the time – I suppose you could call me an outcast of sorts – so I figured they’d be no different than any of the other people who made fun of me. But, thankfully, I was as wrong about them as I was about Billy when I first met him.

I was nervous about going to their house because I only had been there once before. I didn’t want to mess anything up or make a bad impression on them. My only thoughts were of getting through the day without making a fool of myself, or having my father ridicule me in front of them like he did everyone else. I just wanted to survive the whole ordeal unscathed, and not have my father berate me in the car all the way home for screwing everything up for him like I always did.

But all that worrying was for naught as soon as we walked through the door of that small, homey place in the sticks of Jackson County. The sounds and smells still bring tears of joy to my eyes to this very day. The warmth of their welcome enveloped me instantly, unraveling the sting of every rejection I ever had endured or feared in that moment, and I was engulfed with so many overwhelming emotions I could not begin to name. I had expected the worst. What I got, instead, was unconditional love. And my shyness and insecurities immediately fell away.

Everyone spoke at once as we often did when we all got together, and one of the first things I remember was finding out that Billy’s older brother, Terry, was an Auburn fan. If you know anything about Alabama and Auburn’s in-state college football rivalry, then you can understand the mostly good-natured ribbing that often takes place between the schools’ fans. Being an Alabama supporter like Billy and my father, it was on like Donkey Kong, and I started talking nonstop trash to Terry. And just like that, we clicked, because he always gave as good as he got. His oldest son, Jeff, was an Alabama fan, while his youngest, Matt, pulled for Auburn. His wife at the time, Carol, was there, but she wasn’t much of a talker, unlike the rest of us.

There was Tim, Billy’s younger brother, who had stayed with us a few times and was very much babied by his mom, Peggy. I met his Aunt Louise and cousin Tammy, both of whom constantly regaled us with their comedic misadventures. I knew his dad, the quiet Lawrence, and, of course, Peggy. I swear, when she laughed, it came all the way up from the tips of her toes, it was so genuine and loud and jubilant. She was a big woman, bigger than me, and her whole body would shake from the effort. And, boy, those fluffy arms of hers gave the best hugs! She always smelled nice, too, like Tide. Amazing, isn’t it, how we recollect such little things that are far more meaningful than they may seem at the time?

All of the other females were in the kitchen cooking while the rest of us settled in on the couch, chairs and floor to watch football. We all sneaked into the kitchen from time to time to snack on chips, cookies and other homemade treats while we anxiously waited to throw down on some turkey and fixins. It was nothing fancy – we all were the furthest thing from rich – but everything was made with love. And we went back for seconds and thirds as day turned into night. Incredibly enough, we all still went home with loads of leftovers.

It was a tradition we upheld long after my father and Billy weren’t together, one we kept going until 2004. Peggy died suddenly that summer, more than a decade after Lawrence had passed. Billy was killed the following year, and Terry, who had been sick for a long time, finally succumbed to his illness in 2009. The rest of us since have lost touch, but I never have forgotten them, never will. I wish I could rewind time like Superman flew around the world in the movie to save Lois Lane, but I cannot. I wish I could tell them how much they meant to me, how much I loved them, how much they changed my life for the better – all the things I should have told them while they still were alive – but again, I cannot.

What I can do is carry on their tradition, their legacy to me by celebrating and being thankful for all the people who have enriched my life in one way or another. Thank you for giving me a little bit of yourselves when I most needed you. I hope I have done the same for you, that I always will do for others what you have for me. Together, we make life more bearable as we face uncertain futures in an ever-changing, technology-driven society that seems to care less and less for its fellow man. Something we seldom realize until it’s too late.

It would be so easy to be thankless, especially after the hardships of this year and the struggles we all are facing. But, really, you can take away all the material things. They don’t matter, never have when you stop and think about it. Sure, we all dream of being rich, making it big, not having to live from paycheck to paycheck. I’d be lying if I said those thoughts never have crossed my mind. Who wouldn’t? What I am rich in is love – as clichéd as that may seem to some of you – something far more precious than all the money in the world ever could buy. And I can live with that. Quite happily, in fact.

Just look beyond yourselves, to the people you see every day and to those you do not. They are closer to your heart than you may think, regardless of their actual proximity or distance. One kind word from you probably helped them through one of their darkest moments without you ever realizing it. Now, there’s a humbling thought. One that we never should take lightly.

So, as you prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving with your family and friends this week, or you’re planning to beat down everyone in your path for some early Black Friday shopping deals that you simply must have, stop, think and try to be a little kinder in your endeavors. You never know whose life you may change. Mine did for the better 28 years ago Thursday. And because of that, our table always has room for more. No one leaves hungry, no one leaves unhappy and no one leaves without taking home lots of leftovers. My hope is that you will do the same for someone else.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Roll Tide, y’all.

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