Turkey Day is my kind of holiday; it always has been. I love the chatter of family and the clatter of dishes. I love the inevitable eating-myself-into-immobility and then getting up and eating leftovers for breakfast in my pajamas the next day. But one particular Thanksgiving truly shaped my view of the holiday and of my family. It happened when I was about 14 years old.
My parents’ home had descended into the familiar state of chaos that usually marked full-family get-togethers. So no one paid much attention when one of my brothers walked into the house with an extra person in tow. That was pretty standard practice.
Someone offered the guest a glass of Jack Daniels and a seat in front of the television to watch the football game. He settled comfortably into the mayhem and the day proceeded. Hours later, I was in the kitchen when he came in to thank my mother for our hospitality … and then he was gone out the door.
Sometime later, another of my siblings asked my brother about his friend. My brother’s response: “I thought he was your friend.”
After a confusing series of finger pointing over who had acted like they knew the man more, it was clear that no one knew who he was at all.
On that Thursday afternoon, my brother had found the man standing on the sidewalk at our front steps, gazing up at our house. My brother naturally assumed he was an invited guest who’d arrived and was making sure of the address. He said, “Come on in, man.” And the man came on in.
He was a lovely, gracious guest — and he gave us a good laugh in the end. I often wonder how the man ended up standing in front our house that day, and what his Thanksgiving would have been like if he had not been invited in. I am grateful for how we behaved.
My parents were both raised steeped in a tradition of hospitality that was grounded in a quiet kind of Christianity. They were far from Bible-thumpers. My father rarely spent his Sunday mornings in a pew. But he was the best man and most genuine Christian I’ve known, and I noticed that he always whispered his prayers.
My mother would sometimes hint at a belief that, every once in a while, Jesus might just show up at your door disguised as a stranger and take note of how you treated him.
Now I don’t think our Thanksgiving guest was the Savior in search of a glass of Jack and homemade mashed potatoes. In fact, I’m pretty sure that guy worked for the railroad. But, I think our guest might have been a blessing in disguise.
He is a reminder of the lesson my parents taught through their example: That Thanksgiving is not just a time to overeat and count your blessings. It’s an opportunity to create a place at your table and offer it gladly to someone who might want or need one, be they friends or strangers.
My family will get that opportunity again this Thursday. We’re expecting guests from the East Coast and Alaska. An old family friend who used to share Thanksgiving with us in Idaho wants to again. He is coming west and bringing members of his family in tow.
I’ve never even met most of these folks, and I can’t wait to. Thanksgiving is at my house. I’m cooking a 20-pound turkey and have my heart set on many slices of my brother’s sweet potato pie. There will be Jack Daniels and mashed potatoes.
At some point, as we always do, we’ll encircle the table loaded with food, clasp hands and stand in gratitude. My mother will be there. My father won’t join us physically and neither will our mystery guest from so long ago.
But they will be in my thoughts that day. And I will whisper a Thanksgiving prayer for them both.
Kellie Purce Braseth is strategic communications director at the city of Olympia and a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.