We dipped into hearty bowls of butternut squash soup garnished with sprigs of fresh parsley. We passed platters of golden roasted turkey, Nana’s green bean casserole, and homemade crescent rolls. My dear friend added a plate of her family’s special Salvadoran pupusas to the mix, while my famous pumpkin tiramisu chilled in the refrigerator for our grand finale.
What mattered that year was not what we were serving up on our plates but what we were serving up in our hearts. There was a deep gratitude that was almost palpable around the table after the grief journey we had endured as a family.
Just the year before, we had navigated our first holiday without my beloved husband. He was diagnosed with stage four cancer that May and soared to heaven in September, leaving our whole family and community reeling. I never imagined this would be my story. I didn’t ever believe the tasks of a widow-mama would be in my wheelhouse.
That first Thanksgiving we all had to recalibrate for we had lost our leader. I missed him helping me chop the celery for the soup. I missed his booming voice saying the blessing. I missed him entertaining the girls and laughing loud during dessert. His absence loomed large at the table. I had to dig deep to pull up the gratitude then. I had to train myself to name the small gifts – breath in my lungs, three brave daughters, sunsets chasing across the sky, and saving grace.
A year later, the landscape of my heart and our family had changed dramatically.
Just like the abundant food on our table, the blessings were abundant too. My fiancé sat to my right. He started the meal with a blessing-prayer, thanking God for our first meal as a family in the new home we just bought. My youngest girl with the golden hair, like her “Daddy with Jesus,” squeezed the hand of her daddy-to-be. She was bubbling with excitement for the wedding in January where she would be the flower girl.
My dear friend from El Salvador, her two sons, her husband, and his two sisters from India joined our table. They, too, had tasted grief that year as their dad had journeyed through cancer. These were friends who had become like family to us during crisis.
We shared tears and prayers. We drew close together in the gratitude.
After we had emptied the bottles of sparkling cider and most of us were pushing back from the table, there was a kind of hush. A signal that it was time for our traditional sharing about what we were thankful for that year. My parents started it off with tears sparkling in their eyes. My mom talked about how grateful she was for my friend-turned-kinsman-redeemer Shawn, and for the way God orchestrated our relationship. Dad added his eagerness to welcome another son-in-law into our clan.
My mother-in-law, who buried her only child just a little more than a year earlier, expressed her surprising happiness and healing to sit at this table together again. In a trembling voice, she reminded Shawn how she had adopted him into the family years ago when he and her son had become good friends.
Only God knew the next chapter of this wild redemption story and how we would all sit at this Thanksgiving table one day.
My oldest daughter offered up her thanks for our amazing community of friends – people who had shown us what it means to be Emmanuel, God with us. My middle daughter chimed in, reminding us in her ever-sensitive way that her daddy was present with us right there at the table.
My father-in-law said it simply, “A miracle.” It was all an unexpected Thanksgiving miracle.
In these three years, I have learned that every holiday will hold a tinge of grief and a taste of God’s glory. The joy and the pain are always intermingling. And we must lean in. We must gather back at the table and look for the new story unfolding. We must believe that He is always making things new. And we must give thanks for the feast.