My very first memory of Thanksgiving Day is sitting on the steps of a marble staircase, the fifth floor of a five floor walk up apartment building at 194 Rodney Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. I was 5 or 6 years old and by my side was my mother. She was gently poking away with a sterilized sowing needle at a splinter that had lodged itself under the nail of one of my fingers. Odd to say considering the painful first memory I have for this American holiday, in subsequent years Thanksgiving Day became one of my most cherished holidays.
When I had a family of my own, Thanksgiving Day filled the house with great smells and rooms were filled with family and friends; you could hear lively conversation and laughter from young and old. Sharing the joys and dining pleasures with the ones we loved, it doesn’t come any better, but for me, it did, and still does.
Some years ago, I found myself alone and lonely as Thanksgiving Day approached. I passed a Salvation Army bell ringer the year before and struck up a conversation.
“Where are you going to celebrate the holiday season”, I asked.
“With my family,” Was his answer.
“You’re a lucky guy to have your family with you”, I said.
“What about you”, he asked.
“Oh, I don’t have any plans”, I said.
“No family?” He asked.
“I have a family, but they are kind of scattered these days,” I said.
“Sad”, he said.
“No,” I said, now with my guard up, I quickly dropped a contribution into his kettle, wished him a happy holiday and rushed off.
For many years I always had several rolls of quarters in my coat pocket around holiday times so that I would never have to pass a person in need or a Salvation Army bell ringer without leaving something with them. As my financial situation improved I replaced the heavy rolls of coins with paper money.
Throughout that holiday season and into the following year I thought back to that earlier conversation with the bell ringer. I don’t usually feel sorry for myself but I did at that time. Outwardly, I had plenty to be thankful for… my children were in good health… I was in good health… we all had a dry roof over our heads and plenty to eat. I had a few really good friends and I was employed, running a small company in Bloomfield, CT alongside 50 of the best humans with whom I had ever worked. I had a very good life.
So here I was a month or so from Thanksgiving and no place to go. I thought about volunteering somewhere – maybe it was time to give back for all that I had. I contacted the Salvation Army post in Manchester, CT. I can’t explain why I chose the Salvation Army or why I zeroed in on the Manchester location. Looking back, it might have been divine interference. I volunteered to serve Thanksgiving Dinner to the homeless at the Salvation Army and then contacted a shelter nearby and volunteered to serve Christmas Dinner there. (I am not identifying the center by choice and the reason will soon become apparent.)
Thanksgiving Day dinner, along with a lot of other such events at the Manchester Salvation Army post, I quickly learned, is planned and executed by an absolutely marvelous woman, her husband, and two children. Delivered as a genuine labor of love, this caring family had it down to a science with the ultimate objective of making their “guests” feel at home and wanted and cared about. This was not just fulfilling a charity obligation for them or their helper volunteers; this was a genuine act of giving from the heart. I also learned that many women purchased and roasted turkeys and dropped them off at the Manchester Salvation Army post days before the holiday so that some volunteers could carve them the day before the holiday and then return on the morning of Thanksgiving Day to help prepare and serve hundreds of meals and “to go” dinners.
I felt honored to be among this very, very, very special group and never felt better about what I was doing or about myself than I did that Thanksgiving.
Christmas was an entirely different experience.
The woman in charge of the Christmas Dinner preparation and execution showed up in full makeup, dripping in jewels and wearing a suit that must have come from the most exclusive clothing shop in the area and costing close to the monthly income of all of those being served – combined.
Whereas the focus of those at the Salvation Army, about a month earlier, was to treat those who they served as their “guests”; to feel welcomed and sincerely cared about, the equally in need humans being served their Christmas meal at the center were treated like “takers”, interlopers, intruders. “Don’t take more than you can eat”, the society matron kept saying… “You can’t take any food home… we can’t be responsible for food poisoning because you don’t have refrigeration,” she often added.
I was actually ashamed of having been a part of this experience even though the month earlier I left the Salvation Army feeling better about human kind and myself than I had at any time before.
Currently I am truly blessed with much to be thankful for; I have the love of a great woman, my children, their spouses and my two grandchildren are healthy and happy, we all have a dry roof over our heads and plenty to eat, and I have a new career as a published novel writer.
This year, just like last year, Lora and I will be among those who happily join the group at the Manchester, CT, Salvation Army to carve on the day before Thanksgiving and serve on Thanksgiving Day. Later that day we will be having Thanksgiving Dinner with family and friends; the best of all worlds.
However you celebrate, I strongly suggest that you consider those around you who may not have family – either close by or at all – and include as many of them as you can in your holiday plans. I can promise that you will feel absolutely terrific because you did.
Much love and holiday cheer to you all!
Martin Herman lives halfway up a small mountain in Connecticut. He had a long and successful career of managing troubled businesses back to health. While still in his early sixties he began a second career as an executive business consultant working with start-ups and troubled mature companies as a turn-around expert. Now in his upper seventies he is in his third career – a published author.
He has found great pleasure writing mystery novels and has just released a book of short stories written with his daughter, Aimee, a college English teacher and an accomplished author, poet and performance artist. Their book, “A Very Special Dress and other stories” had its official launch at this year’s “Big E” New England Fair, in Springfield, MA.
He is currently writing the fourth book in his Will James Mystery series, the working title is “The Return to Sender Files” and a book on business with his daughter, Jessica Weitz.