Sunday, November 27, 2011

Orphans' Thanksgiving

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The church’s young associate pastor, Michelle Tellum, loves Thanksgiving. She loves the camaraderie of a big gathering of loved ones, the spirit of gratitude, and, most of all, the big, fancy meal. But Michelle’s family lives out of town, and her boyfriend Ian’s parents were spending this year’s holiday in California with the family of his older sister who had recently given birth to their first grandchild.

So Michelle decided to host an “orphans’ Thanksgiving” at the church for all the congregants with nowhere else to go. She would make the turkey and stuffing and others could sign up to bring sides, salads and desserts. She was very excited – it would be the first Thanksgiving she’d ever hosted and she wanted it to be spectacular.

Michelle and Ian got to the church early on Thanksgiving Day to begin the preparations. She had bought nice tablecloths, borrowed some fancy dishware from Ian’s parents, and handcrafted napkin rings out of twigs. While she set all this up, Ian moved the TV from the lounge to the social hall so they could put the football games on. Michelle was not a football fan, but she knew if she didn’t allow this, Ian and probably many of the other guests would just spend the day in the lounge and that would dampen the fellowship she so valued. Besides, guys watching football on Thanksgiving brought back nostalgic memories of her childhood holidays.

Michelle had been brining the turkey since the previous morning. It was a process she’d read about in one of her gourmet cooking magazines. She was just lifting it out of the brine to place it in the roasting pan when the first guest arrived.

It was Thad Wheeling, a thirty-year-old single man who was an infrequent attendee at worship but who played on the church softball team. Thad handed her a casserole dish containing string beans in a Swiss cheese sauce. “Fancy,” Michelle said.

“Thanks, I got the recipe online. It needs to go in the oven for fifteen minutes or so to warm up before we eat.” He looked at the bucket of water with the turkey in it. “What’s going on there?”

“I brined the turkey,” she told him. “It’s supposed to make it a lot more juicy and flavorful. I’m also going to make an apple-walnut-sausage stuffing. It’s my own recipe – can’t wait to see what you think.”

“Actually,” Thad said, “I won’t be able to give you a review. I’ve become a vegetarian.”

Michelle’s face fell. “Oh. I wish I knew. I would have arranged a vegetarian entre.”

“I didn’t want you to go to that kind of trouble. I’ll be fine. I love side dishes and can easily make a meal of them.”

“Tell you what,” Michelle said. “I’ll make a little of the stuffing in a separate dish without the sausage.”

The next guests to arrive were choir director Shane Reed, his girlfriend, Audra, and her six-year-old son Tyler. Shane brought mashed potatoes and Audra brought sweet potatoes. They were calling themselves “Team Potato.” Even Tyler contributed with a can of cranberry sauce.

Then eighty-six year-old Donald East arrived. “Donald,” Michelle said, forcing a smile, “I didn’t know you were coming.” She didn’t know because he hadn’t told her despite clear, bold-faced text on all the announcements that an RSVP was required.

“I brought this,” Donald said, handing her a bag of potato chips. “Ah, you have the game on.” Donald shuffled over to join Ian in front of the TV.

Michelle looked at Shane and Audra and sighed. “I’m sure we can accommodate one extra. I don’t imagine he’ll eat that much.”

“I’ll put these in a bowl,” Shane offered with a wink, taking the bag of chips.

Missy Moore, a bubbly, heavy set, forty-four year-old woman who was always covered in cat hair, arrived shortly after that. She brought two pies, pumpkin and apple. By this time Michelle was at work on her sausage-apple-walnut stuffing. Missy oohed and aahed over the recipe. “It sounds wonderful,” she said. “Unfortunately I don’t like nuts.”

“I suppose I could make a separate batch without nuts,” Michelle said. “I’m already doing one without meat for Thad.”

Missy clapped her hands together. “Oh, that would be awesome! But keep the sausage in mine.”

It took Michelle a little longer than anticipated to get the turkey stuffed and in the oven due to extra effort involved in making three varieties of the stuffing. She was washing her hands when Ian poked his head in. “The Veckenshims called. They’re not coming after all. Pete’s not feeling well.”

“But they were going to bring salad!” she moaned.

“I think we can get by without it,” Ian said. “I mean, nobody goes to Thanksgiving dinner for salad.” A loud roar came from the TV. Ian hurried back to see what he’d missed.

Michelle knew Ian was right about the salads, but she wanted her Thanksgiving to be perfect so she made a quick trip to the grocery store up the street. Fortunately they were staying open until 3 pm for people who needed last minute items.

She’d just finished assembling the salad when Ian came in again. “We’re out of potato chips and everyone’s getting hungry,” he said. “Do we have any other appetizers?”

“I suppose we could put out some cheese and crackers from the coffee hour supplies.”

“Perfect!” Ian headed back to the social hall.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get them,” Michelle said to the empty kitchen.

Michelle sliced some cheese and arranged it artfully on a platter with crackers. She checked the turkey and found she still had about an hour to socialize with the guests before it was ready.

She brought the snacks out to the social hall and squeezed in beside Ian on the couch. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek, then resumed his discussion with Thad and Donald about the relative merits of the zone defense. After ten minutes of trying to comprehend what they were talking about, Michelle decided to visit with some of the other guests.

She walked over to Shane and Audra who were lounging in the far corner of the room. “Am I interrupting?” Michelle asked.

“Not at all,” Audra said. “We were just taking the opportunity for a little adult conversation while Missy entertains Tyler.” She gestured to where Missy and Tyler were seated on a love seat reading a book.

“Great,” Michelle said. “So what are you talking about?”

“Twin Peaks,” Shane replied. “We’ve been watching the DVDs.”

“I’ve never seen it,” Michelle said.

“Oh, it’s brilliant.” Shane launched into a sprawling description of the show, in the midst of which he and Audra got sidetracked into a debate about the meaning of a dwarf that talked backwards. It made even less sense to Michelle than the zone defense, so she politely excused herself and went to join Missy and Tyler.

Missy was reading Tyler a story, or at least she was trying to. Tyler kept embellishing things with improvised subplots based on the pictures in the book. Michelle settled into a nearby chair to listen, and soon drifted off to sleep.

She was awakened when Thad called out, “Hey Michelle, did you remember to put my beans in the oven?”

“I was just about to,” Michelle said, groggily.

A short time later the turkey was carved and everyone was gathered around the table. It had taken two hours longer than Michelle had planned and she hadn’t managed to do much socializing. She was pretty sure this would be the last orphans’ Thanksgiving she would host.

Michelle said grace. The hungry diners lunged for the food as soon as they heard the word, “Amen.” She watched them shovel the turkey and various kinds of stuffing into their mouths with barely a pause to taste it. Michelle found she didn’t have much appetite herself.

And then Missy said, “I have an idea! Let’s go around the table and say what we’re grateful for. I’ll start. I’m grateful for my cats, Cinnamon, Vanilla, Pepper, Salty and Chocolate.”

She looked at Ian who was sitting next to her. “I’m grateful the church has cable so we could watch the games,” he said.

Michelle found she was having a hard time thinking of anything very specific she was grateful for at that moment, so she went to an old standby: “I’m thankful for my health.”

Shane was next. “I’m grateful I found Audra, the love of my life.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet,” Audra said. “I’m grateful for both my boys.” She gave Shane and Tyler each a kiss. Tyler made a face.

Audra asked Tyler what he was grateful for.

“My scooter,” he answered.

Donald was next in line. He was hunched over his plate, mechanically scooping stuffing into his mouth, apparently ignoring the conversation.

“Mr. East,” Missy prodded, “what are you thankful for?”

“Wazzat?” Donald asked, looking up. He was hard of hearing.

“We’re going around the table saying what we’re thankful for,” Missy told him.

“Oh.” Donald thought for a few moments. “I’m thankful for the company. Since my wife passed and our kids live out of state, I was going to have to have Thanksgiving dinner by myself. I’m also thankful for this amazing stuffing. You’re quite a cook, Pastor.”

Then Donald returned his attention to his plate.

Thad was the last in line. “I’m thankful for Pastor Michelle’s hospitality,” he said. “And as a gesture of that gratitude, I’ll take care of the clean up after dinner.” The others quickly offered to help him.

Michelle beamed. “Thank you,” she said. “Pass the sweet potatoes, please.” She had finally found her appetite.