Thanksgivings Past and Present

The Thanksgiving table was ready, each place at the polished oak table sparkling with new stemware and china. So what if the official holiday was five months away? Ann Thomas’* gratitude couldn’t wait.

On this hot June day of 2007, in her village of Phoenix, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans, Ann walked me through her newly built home, fresh with the smell of paint and new furniture. This home replaced the one swept away when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2005. After nearly two years of living with relatives and then in a FEMA trailer, Ann and her husband, Dymond, were finally home.

I was just one of the many volunteers from Covenant World Relief who had spent the past year helping the Thomases and other Phoenix residents rebuild. In the coming months, more houses were finished and more families left their cramped trailers to return home. By Thanksgiving, they were ready to serve up their gratitude and sweet potato pie to the volunteers fortunate to be there for the weekend. I was one of them.

The church-hopping that started the day – we worshipped at St. Joseph’s and then Zion Travelers – moved into table-hopping, a festive parade from house to house where each hostess served us a traditional Cajun feast. I vowed to approach this day as a progressive dinner – appetizers at the first house, salads at the second, entrees next, etc. – but my Midwest resolve disappeared when I walked into Ann’s kitchen and saw the counter laden with a Cajun-spiced turkey, dirty rice, gumbo, shrimp-stuffed peppers, and sweet potato pie. I tasted it all, and did the same at the next three houses. By 7:00, I reached my fifth house with a greatly diminished group and appetite. Two of us shared pie and stories with our 80-year-old friend Ellen.

At each stop throughout the day, the stories and laughter fed us as much as the oyster dressing and baked spaghetti. We learned how faith always trumped despair, how a devastated community remained hopeful and thankful.

It’s a lesson I’m carrying today as I head to the nursing home with Craig and my daughter Anna to pick up my dad and take him to my brother’s house, where 15 of us will be nourished by my sister-in-law’s turkey and stuffing as well as everyone’s stories and laughter. Our faith and gratitude this year are coupled with suffering and sadness. A year ago Dad was carving the turkey and telling the stories. He suffered two strokes this past year and is now weakened and unable to say what’s on his mind. Today he will listen and tire early. We’ll drive him home and laugh some more, letting him know how thankful we are for the rich way he continues to fill our lives.


* Thanks to Marianne, my traveling and feasting partner that Thanksgiving Day, for correcting my spelling of Ann’s last name. I’ve updated it from the first version.


  1. Well, I guess I’ll “speak my mind”– you’re gaining an audience. Wonderful.

  2. Really beautiful painting and a very thoughtful and insightful post.

  3. Julie Cook says:

    Community, whether formed from friends or family (or both!) is a beautiful thing.

  4. Kristen Brown says:

    This is so beautiful….I even teared up a bit. Thanks for sharing this story.

  5. Eric Disney says:

    I love reading this the day after–so beautifully stated, Lee, and beautifully painted, Craig–why am I not surprised by either??? My own Father passed away on this day, the day after Thanksgiving, in 1989–23 years ago. It hardly seems possible that it has been that long. When I hear people use the phrase “Black Friday”, it has a whole other connotation for me. My Father and I were not friends–but we did love each other–we just didn’t know how to convey that, one to the other. I know that you will cherish yesterday with your Dad as you have every other Thanksgiving spent with him, whether he was carving or just being present–consider it a blessing.

    • Eric, Thanks for your wise, caring words. I need to be reminded to cherish every opportunity I have with those I love and those who love me. It’s often easier to focus on the irritations when we’re with family rather than the rich history and underlying love that binds us together.