By Nancy Hoag
My husband and I had been longing for a holiday around the table with our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and siblings, but this would be yet another Thanksgiving with none of our family within driving distance. More than once, even the joy of being surrounded by neighbors and colleagues had sufficed, but this year we would be serving as volunteers, building Habitat for Humanity houses hundreds of miles from the place we called home—and for weeks I had been down in the dumps with the niggling feeling that I would forever be lonely.
This sense of sadness was not a new feeling for me; because we had endured numerous holidays mostly alone in Louisiana, Virginia, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas, I had frequently found myself dreaming about the familiar faces that “should have been” gathered together in our home. Even when we’d relocated with my husband’s work from Montana to Pennsylvania and before any of our moving cartons were packed, taped, and weighed, I’d struggled with the knowledge that when the holidays made their appearance, we would once again feel disconnected and overcome with a familiar sadness difficult to shake.
That is, until the day we were introduced to the extended family God had planted in Georgia.
“Just Bring Yourselves”
There were nine of us—each one a relocated Habitat volunteer with an RV hooked up in an unfamiliar campground. Every one of us discussed the unhappy fact that we would either be dining alone in our trailers for Thanksgiving or looking for a café or hotel with a menu that would include roasted turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy like Mother’s, and old-fashioned dressing. While I tried to sound upbeat, I had finally admitted to my husband how I had, for days, been wrestling with a “poor me” mindset.
“I have all the reason in the world,” I’d said, “with too many miles separating me from the people I love best.” In the presence of our teammates, however, I made up my mind not to whine. I suggested, “If we end up alone, we can be grateful that we have each other.” But God had another plan, one revealed even before we had to begin a search for the one café that just might be serving up a “real” Thanksgiving dinner.
“Do you all have kin nearby or anywhere to go?” A woman I recognized but did not know had approached our Habitat team’s lunch table a few days before Thanksgiving.
Several volunteers shook their heads and shrugged. “We’re going to find a café,” I said.
Then the woman began to shake her head. “My daughter and her husband own a farm just west of town, and she would be so happy if you would come share Thanksgiving with our family.”
Her daughter? A farm? It sounded like Heaven to me, but she’d never laid eyes on any of us. “I only have my work clothes,” I said, which meant I had nothing to wear.
The woman smiled. “You all just come on out to our place,” she said, as she began to scribble on a pad the directions we would need to get there.
“But what can we bring?” one of the other volunteers asked.
“You just bring yourselves.” The woman smiled. “Or if fixin’ a family special is something you would like to do, bring just anything at all. We’ll have plenty, though, and we’ll consider it a blessing if you folks would join us.”
“Whatever Suits You”
Within minutes we were each saying how good all of this sounded. With our spirits renewed, we began to make our lists, announcing what each of us would be cooking to contribute. To say my husband likes my pumpkin pie is to put it mildly. “I’ll bring a couple of pies,” I said, adding to the rapidly growing list as the others began to laugh and announce which favorite salad, hot dish, or dessert they would be adding to the festive table.
Not until the day arrived, however, did we each understand just how delightful time spent with a deeply rooted, five-generation family was going to be. Earlier in the week, we’d visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, Georgia. We’d even been introduced to the former President and First Lady, who were welcoming and gracious. But we would discover, on a far-from-town farm, a kindness we would not soon forget.
Prior to our arrival, our hosts—along with their aunts, uncles, grandmothers, children, and grandchildren—had been total strangers to us Yankees. Within minutes, however, we’d been hugged, tucked in, and made to feel as if we’d come home. The invitation to bring “whatever suits you” had broken the ice. Surrounded by the lovely aroma wafting from more than one turkey stuffed with dressing and catching the sweet scent of baked yams, we were invited to help set up the chairs and tables.
“Hop on In”
With more than 40 of us filling the house, there would also be rockers to rearrange on the porch, playpens to set up, babies on laps, and an occasional hound making its appearance. In addition, some tables still needed platters and bowls while others were just waiting for the vegetables, beverages, and a mouth-watering assortment of homemade goodies created from family recipes. The serving tools had already been set out, while appetizers and punch were being offered, and someone had purchased a tabletop banner with napkins that said, “Welcome!”
Then, just as we would have at my sister’s table, we all bowed our heads, joined hands, and thanked our heavenly Father for all he had provided.
And the “family reunion” followed as we each pulled up a chair and got comfy. After dinner, when I suggested I’d like to help with the dishes, a great-grandmother handed me an embroidered towel and, with a sweet smile, said, “Well, then, you just come on in here and be my extra.” Had I spent Thanksgiving with my daughter and granddaughters, I’d have been doing exactly what I was now doing.
We’d been on the farm several hours—with even the teens inviting us to join them for a game of Scrabble®—when one of the younger family members noted how he’d seen me “walkin’ all that way down to the kennels” for a look at the brand new pups. And now, with zero hesitation, this handsome member of the family had wheeled up close on his ATV to declare how he thought I should “hop on in” for a lift back to the house. I hesitated at first, but then who could resist that grin? So I did and was treated to my first invigorating ride on an ATV driven by a 7-year-old. When I asked about his qualifications, he, with head held high, announced, “Shoot! I been drivin’ for years.”
Then, as if that hadn’t been more joy than I deserved, I was dropped off at the house where I was handed an infant to rock—and I recalled the day I’d cradled my first grandchild. Catching my husband’s smile, I nodded as a mother with her two daughters disappeared on horseback up and over a sunset hill.
“A Day of Thanksgiving and Praise”
We had dreaded not being with our own family, had even said how we were looking forward to putting this holiday behind us. “It will be a day to simply get through,” we’d agreed. Instead, I knew we would never again enjoy a day more than we had enjoyed our day on this farm in Georgia.
We’d been on the road with our truck and trailer for nearly four years, putting in long and taxing days on multiple construction projects. But here we sat with my husband beginning to nod off and both of us feeling revived. The Lord had provided a home-cooked meal, a bustling kitchen, raisin pie that tasted exactly like my own grandma’s recipe, a generous family, a breath of fresh air out on a porch in wooden rockers—and my first ride on an ATV.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set apart the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”—and all these years later, we had received his benefits. Joined to a family that had, for a day, become our own, we had raised our voices together in praise for the precious reminder that our God is always near, and he cares about every member of his family.
Nancy Hoag is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana.