Whenever Thanksgiving week rolls around, two particular Thanksgiving memories usually come to mind. Both spur me to recall the true meaning of the holiday.
On my first Thanksgiving on my own after college, I was living in Washington, D.C. and working as a young reporter at The Washington Post. As was often the case, the young, single reporters were asked to work on the holidays. Though I had Thanksgiving Day off, I had to come to work on the Friday after the holiday, so I opted not to try to travel home to New Jersey to be with my family.
I wonderful priest from Ireland named Father Patrick Leddy was assigned at the time to the St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where I attended Mass on Sundays. We had become friends over the six months that I had been living in D.C. and he asked me the Sunday before Thanksgiving where I’d be spending the holiday. When I told him I’d be on my own, he quickly replied, “Now that won’t do, will it?”
A few hours later he telephoned to say two friends of his named Rena and Ed (their last name escapes me after all these years) wanted to invite me to their home for Thanksgiving. These were people who didn’t know me at all, in fact, had never laid eyes on me. Father Leddy assured me I’d enjoy being with Rena and Ed and that they had four daughters who were around my age.
I went with some trepidation that Thanksgiving afternoon to their lovely home on the northwest side of Washington. Rena and Ed couldn’t have been more welcoming. What I remember most though, is that after our meal, Ed put some discs on a record player and danced with each of his daughters. He invited me to dance too! I still get teary-eyed thinking of the love and joy that was in that family and how much it meant to me to be a small part of it for a short time.
The next year, Rena and Ed got in touch with me again at Thanksgiving to make sure I knew I was always welcome in their home. By then I’d made some close friends in D.C. and was able to spend the holiday with the family of one of those friends. Still, I never forgot that first Thanksgiving on my own, made so joyful by the generosity of Rena and Ed and their willingness to accept a stranger at their table.
A few years later, I was living in Chicago and working as a staff writer in the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal. I lived in a high rise on North Lake Shore Drive that was home to many young professionals like myself, but also a number of elderly people, long retired.
I had made many good friends in Chicago so I never risked being alone on holidays when I couldn’t get back to see my parents. On one of my first Thanksgivings in Chicago, I was heading off to my meal with friends when I noticed several of the elderly residents of the building sitting in the lobby of our building. I thought they might be waiting for relatives or friends to pick them up to go to Thanksgiving dinner.
When I returned a few hours later, most of them were still in the lobby. I realized no one had come for them. They had nowhere to go for their Thanksgiving meal.
I probably should have invited them up to my apartment for a chat and cup of tea, but I didn’t think of doing that. The next year, though, I bought several loaves of pumpkin bread and on Thanksgiving morning, left a gift bag for each of them at their door. It was the smallest of gestures. I should have invited them to my place for a Thanksgiving meal, but I was not the cook in those days that I am now, so preparing a turkey and all the trimmings seemed much too intimidating to me back then.
I hoped, though, that my small gift would let my elderly neighbors know that they were valued, that they were seen.
On a visit to the U.S. Mother Teresa once observed that the great American illness isn’t heart disease or cancer, but loneliness. November is a month when we remember those we’ve loved who have died. It is also the start of the holiday season when it’s equally important to remember those who live alone, who might feel isolated. If we can’t invite them for a meal for them, perhaps a call or a card will help them feel less alone.
Rena and Ed left an indelible memory and imparted an important lesson. They showed how each meal can be a version of the Eucharist, the ‘thanksgiving’ that Jesus instituted at the Last Supper as a way of remaining in communion with us, and a way that we remain in communion with each other. In the years since I’ve married, I’ve always invited friends over for the holidays. The greatest gift I receive each holiday season is having a group of people around my table. It is what I am most thankful for.
This holiday season, who are the people who might need our company? How can we reach out to them?