For Thanksgiving this year, my family is going to serve 2,600 pounds of turkey, 2,200 pounds of mashed potatoes and 150 gallons of gravy. That’s a lot of food, I know. Then again, we’re expecting 6,000 guests. That’s because we’ll be volunteering at the Twin Ports Region Thanksgiving Buffet here in Duluth, Minnesota.
Sponsored by the College of St. Scholastica, it’s a feast open to anyone in need of a warm meal and an even warmer community. For me, it’s become a family affair, with my kids and their aunts, uncles, cousins—18 of us all together—pitching in. Enough to staff an entire banquet on our own.
You might wonder why this is our Thanksgiving tradition. Well, it all started one November 12 years ago when I didn’t feel like there was anything to be celebrating, let alone be grateful for.
My husband had left me that summer, our marriage of 15 years and our home broken. I felt broken myself. I wasn’t sure I knew what it meant to be a family anymore.
I definitely wasn’t excited about Thanksgiving dinner. My sister, Wanda, had offered to host our big family celebration at her place in Hibbing, an hour and a half away, but I said no. We’d always had Thanksgiving at my house. I wanted—needed—to preserve some sense of normalcy for my children.
Dom was 10. Mia was 5. They seemed so fragile. Every night before their bedtime prayers, I would hug them and tell them I loved them. That their dad loved them. That most of all, God loved them and was watching over them. Then we’d take turns saying something positive about our day. A moment at work. A compliment from Dom’s hockey coach. A friend’s puppy that Mia played with. I wanted them to have something good to hang on to every day.
But it wasn’t nearly enough to make them feel secure again after the divorce had shaken their world.
Mia, especially. She couldn’t fully grasp that her daddy wasn’t coming back to live with us. She’d grown fearful since he left, skittish around people she didn’t know well, afraid of the dark. “I’m scared,” I overheard her tell Dom one day. “Of what?” he asked, ready to be the big brother and protect her. Her answer broke my heart: “Everything.”
Dom tried his best to be the man of the house. If a light burned out he was right there to change it. When the knob to the front door fell off, he insisted he could fix it. I wanted to encourage him so I let him. An hour later, he proclaimed the job finished. But somehow he’d managed to lock the door from the inside. There was no way to get out. He was crestfallen.
Thank goodness Dom had hockey. He threw himself into the sport like never before. And into his schoolwork. But in his own way I knew he was hurting as deeply as Mia. It felt as if he’d grown up five years in five months.
I didn’t have anyone who really understood what I was going through. No one I knew was divorced. My siblings were doing everything they could to help, and they were probably tired of hearing about my struggles. I talked to my sister often, but she couldn’t be on call for me 24 hours a day—she was busy with her own kids and her job as a teacher. My brother, Mike, and my brother-in-law, Jeff, stepped up and took Dom and Mia fishing and camping.
I’d started going to counseling to learn how to support my kids emotionally, how to get my confidence back. “It takes time to heal from divorce,” my counselor told me. “Try to get involved in some sort of outside activity. Volunteer. Help yourself by helping others.”
Between the kids and my job—I was a district manager for a food-distribution company—I barely had a minute to spare. I didn’t have time or energy for volunteer work.
A few days before Thanksgiving, I called Wanda. We chatted for a bit. Then she asked about the kids.
“I’m worried about them,” I said. “I feel like they’re not getting to live a normal life. This is so hard on them.”
For a long moment there was only silence.
Finally Wanda said, “Jean, do you understand how blessed your kids are? They have a mother who loves them and has a good job so she can take care of them. They have more than enough at every meal, a comfortable house, warm beds to sleep in. You should see the problems some of the kids in my classroom have to deal with.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned this, but never so directly.
The next day in the newspaper I came across an article on the Twin Ports Region Thanksgiving Buffet. It was open to anyone in the community, particularly those in need. Through my job, I knew a man who was involved in putting the dinner together. With my sister’s admonishment and my counselor’s advice ringing in my ears, I called him and asked if there was a way my kids and I could help.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We can always use servers. We’ll see you at the convention center a little before eleven.”
I wasn’t sure what my kids would think. We’d never done anything like this before. But they sounded excited.
“I’m really going to pass out the food?” Mia asked. “By myself? Cool!”
Thanksgiving morning at the convention center, we were each assigned chef’s hats and spots in the serving line. Mia stood behind a giant serving dish of corn. Dom had the wild rice. I was responsible for the mashed potatoes.
I kept checking on the kids at first. Was Mia nervous being around so many strangers? Was she able to reach people’s trays? Would she get tired? Our shift was from 11:00 to 12:30, a long time for a five-year-old. Yet Mia never once looked to me. She only had eyes for each person stopping in front of her, as if serving them was the most important responsibility of her young life.
Dom was even more deliberate than Mia. He made sure each guest got a healthy serving of wild rice, carefully ladled onto their plate. He was totally dialed in, as if this were a hockey game that had gone into overtime.
As the crowd snaked past, I began to focus more on the guests in front of me. It was clear from the way some of the people shuffled by, their eyes downcast, that they were struggling. But when they saw Mia and Dom, surprise, then delight, spread across their faces. Their spirits seemed to lift.
“Why, thank you, little lady,” people would say. “That looks delicious, young man. Have a happy Thanksgiving.”
Mia glowed. “I hope you like the food,” she sang out. “That’s my brother. And my mommy. We wanted to help.”
Dom nodded at the guests. “Happy Thanksgiving to you too, sir, ma’am,” he said to them. It had been months since I’d seen such a proud look on his face.
A guest paused in front of me—a woman with two children not much older than my own. Their coats were threadbare, and from the way the kids’ eyes widened, I knew it had been a while since they’d had such a big meal. Yet there was a quiet strength about this young mother. “Thank you,” she said. “God bless you.”
He already has, I thought, looking at my son and daughter. They were going to be okay. The three of us were finding our way as a family. I’d never felt so grateful, so cared for, so blessed.
At the end of our shift, I hugged my kids close and told them how proud I was of them. “Can we do this again next year?” Mia and Dom asked.
“Count on it,” I said.
That evening, my sister and brother and their families came over for our Thanksgiving dinner. We told them about our day. “Wow!” my brother said. “That sounds like a great way to celebrate.”
The following year, Mia, Dom and I again volunteered at the Thanksgiving buffet. And the year after that. Mia even wrote about it in second grade, for an essay on her favorite holiday. “I like being with my family,” she wrote, “and seeing people smile. It’s the best feeling ever.”
By then, my brother’s and sister’s families—the Fumias, the Boettchers and the Cimermancics—had joined us. This year 18 of us will be serving dinner, filling water glasses, busing tables, sitting and talking to our guests, learning about their lives. I can’t think of a better way for us to spend Thanksgiving. Being together, bringing good food to people’s plates and smiles to their faces…as Mia said, it’s the best, most blessed feeling ever.
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