I’m going to tell you a story that you may not believe.  The pity is, it’s true.
When I was fourteen, my grandmother died under a glorious azure sky, not one cloud to cast a shadow.  It was early May, 1970…and I was playing baseball while she died.  Months later, under granite skies of late autumn, we had our first Thanksgiving dinner without her.  

​I tell you this because she meant everything to me…and because this time of year always puts me in mind of that first Thanksgiving without someone I deeply loved.  Sitting around a table, enjoying food and family was what always made Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.  Whatever senseless acrimony or quarrels our family indulged throughout the year seemed – for a few precious hours – to melt away.
For me, that first Thanksgiving without my grandmother left a chair unfilled, and my soul stung from her loss.  So, rather than sit around a television watching another fine example of bad Detroit Lions football, I retreated to my father’s woods, and walked along the creek bed that wound through the forest. 
Listening to squirrels jealously gathering what few nuggets were left among the fallen blanket of gold, russet and burnt orange, those brilliant banners of another harvest had mostly ceased to blaze.  The deer retreated from the fallen apples because of hunters, and only the occasional call of owls broke the stillness beside the creek…belying the coming winter.  For me – a confused and restless kid of fourteen – that was sanctuary.  On my knees, leaning on a fallen log, I prayed for whatever lifeforce spun the planets and suspended the sun in space, to help me understand for what I should be thankful.

Photograph:  H. J. McEnroe

His answer came the following week.  Arriving home late from a basketball game, the house was dark, my parents and little sister already asleep.  Tired and hungry, I raided the refrigerator (as only a ravenous teenager can do), retreated to the living room, and switched on TV.  Then, I heard it…footsteps.  They came from directly beneath the far end of the living room, on the stairwell leading up from the basement to the kitchen.  The rhythm of steps was unmistakable – a halting cadence.  It was the unmistakable sound of my grandmother, climbing those stairs in her familiar oxford shoes: “ba-clomp, ba-clomp, ba-clomp.”
A chill raced down my spine, lifting me out of my chair.  I carefully walked toward the sound.  It stopped, briefly.  Then, began again:  “ba-clomp, a-clomp, ba-clomp,” in halting cadence.  This sound, I knew…to my marrow.  I had walked those steps with my grandmother several times in her final years of life on this planet…down the stairs, up again.  I had guarded our precious hours of conversation and stories, as jealously as those squirrels, gathering nuts.  So, I KNEW – instinctively and palpably – exactly what this was.
Still, could I believe it?  I might be hallucinating…perhaps just my wishful thinking.  Or maybe it was something far more sinister, malevolent or evil?  I heard the kitchen door groan open slowly.  Trembling, I knew I had to leave the room, had to investigate.  Creeping toward the kitchen, I reached around the corner, turned on the light…the door to the stairwell was closed.  Hmpf…just hallucinating, after all, I assured myself.
Years passed, but from that night onward, every time I arrived home late – alone with my own thoughts – the same thing happened.  I often wondered, what are you trying to tell me, grandma…?  Then, one night into my sophomore year at university, I returned home well past midnight, having braved a fierce snowstorm…and again, the sound, “ba-clomp, ba-clomp, ba-clomp.”  This time, I casually strolled into the kitchen for a second beer…in time to see the door to the stairwell swinging open!  I made the sign of the cross, began to pray, and from behind me, my mother’s voice sliced the deafening silence.
“Everything okay…?”
“Yes!” I snapped, nodding.  Then, I saw her eyes.  “Mom…I need to ask you something.”
Her stare belied her fear.  Bear in mind, I was not close with my mother, but I had to ask.
“Mom, do you—” I hesitated, “have you ever heard something strange in the night in this house?”
She half-winced, “What do you mean…?”  But her face said it all.
“Every time I’m up alone in this house, late at night, I…” I couldn’t believe I was saying it, “I – I hear something.”
“Something…?” she asked, beginning to smirk.
“Yeah…sounds like…sounds exactly like Grandma’s footsteps on the stairway, followed by that door opening.  Tonight, it actually opened as I watched.  Did you see it?  Am I losing my mind?”
“Sit down,” she said, motioning to the kitchen table.  We both sat.  She continued, “No, you’re not losing your mind.  And yes, I’ve heard it, too.  I’ve heard it every time since it first happened, back when you were fourteen.  I’ve heard it.  And yes, sometimes that door opens.  It doesn’t happen often, but it always happens when you’re home.”
Stunned, I cautiously asked, “What are you saying…?”
She smiled, “You know what I’m saying.  And every time you come home from college, it happens…again and again.  And sometimes, yes – the door opens.”  Tears spilling, she said, “She must really have loved you.”
“The feeling,” I said, “was mutual.” 
Why are you telling us this…? you may wonder. 
It’s simple:  on that night, a twenty-year old finally learned the true meaning of Thanksgiving.  It’s NOT the bullshit we’ve been taught in school about pilgrims and Indians feasting, though some of that may well have happened.  It’s not about turkeys and stuffing, and gravy and blah, blah, blah.
Thanksgiving is about us…imperfect humans, doing our best to be more than we are, to become stewards of one another, and to offer love to our fellow brothers and sisters in all its many, varied forms.  It is families re-grouping, forgiving, sharing food and laughter, and genuine concern and love for each other on our mutual ride of God’s roller-coaster, at a rotational speed of 1,677 KPH, hurtling through space at 67,000 MPH.  My grandmother understood that, even if none of the rest of us did.  In the autumn of my life, I’ve come to understand it, too…if slowly.
I want to share with you something I read on a good friend’s Facebook page today.  It’s a true tale, and is told with loving and a sense of stewardship for our fellow brothers and sisters:
Been thinking about this all day. I went shopping today, and when checking out, the shopper
ahead of me checking out had a cart full of thanksgiving dinner…turkey, potatoes and all the trimmings. The cutest little helper passing fresh fruit and whatever to her mom.  Well when
everything was totaled, the mom was $7.00 short. I offered to help her pay for that and she
refused…me being me, I insisted. There wasn’t any junk food and it was a complete Thanks-
giving dinner. “Please let me help you,” I insisted again. I looked at the lady ringing the
young lady up, and tears were in her eyes, just like the ones in mine. I am so thankful the
Lord had me behind this family and my heart feels good.
                                                                                     - An anonymous, kind soul 
Of course, it feels good.  We were designed to be our brothers’ keepers. 
In the midst of Covid-19, we are now encouraged to refrain from large gatherings, whether family or not…and we should be vigilant.  The virus is a killer, and we have already lost a quarter-million Americans…with potentially many more to follow.  Yet, we are called to be our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.  How can we possibly do both…?
Here is my humble, but heartfelt, recommendation: 
Sometime tomorrow, in the midst of turkey and football, family and feasting…whether together with family, or isolated by Covid…take a walk in the woods, along a creek or riverbed, in a park or other place of nature preserve.  Speak as little as possible; just walk.  Listen to what the earth and its other lifeforms have to say.  You will be humbled.  Your heartbeat may slow – your blood-pressure lower.  It’s called, “communing with God.”  Listen to what He has to say…through the voices of your ancestors, through the loving touch of a brisk breeze, the biting chill of late November.  Dare to be different tomorrow.  Dare to go walking and say, “Lord, here I am.  I am listening.  Please…speak to me.”
And if you hear the rustle of leaves, the tatter of a woodpecker on a tree, or the hoot of an owl foretelling winter’s chill, listen to it.  Honor it.  Be thankful for it.  I promise you, it is the truest thing you will hear all day.

Back to blog

Leave a comment