The man in plaid, nods toward Jerry's mother. “She's why we do this, you know. The whole thing was her idea. Few years ago, she wanted to help our community.”

Noon. Antioch Baptist Church. North Carolina. This place is a small, brick building. It's on the side of a mountain. Not a fancy mountain, but the kind with mobile homes and cars on blocks.

An eight-year-old named Abigale greets us. She takes our coats and hats and guides us to a plastic table in the fellowship hall.

There's a boy in the corner playing “Amazing Grace” on the ukulele. He's not bad.

“What y'all want to drink?” Abigale says.

“Two sweet teas, please, Abigale.”

"Please, call me, Abby," she says.


Abby's got a lot of drink orders. Being a waitress is a hardscrabble life.

We're at a table with six others. One man is wearing a plaid shirt with suspenders. His hearing aids aren't turned up. His wife repeats things for his benefit.

The fella on my other side is Jerry. Jerry is in his early thirties and he lives at home. His mother is beside him. She keeps a close watch on Jerry at all times.

“I'm SO EXCITED!” Jerry points out.

The table concurs in earnest.

“ARE YOU EXCITED?” Jerry asks me.

“You bet your drumstick I'm excited. For what?”


Abby announces that it's

time to dish our plates. The entire room stands. Fifty people, maybe more. These are salt-of-the-earth folks. Jeans-and-sweat-shirt people.

In the line: two identical twins. They are six-foot-ten. They're mother says they're still fifteen. They're going to eat this place off the map.

Ahead of me is Jerry. His mother piles extra potatoes and dressing on his plate. Jerry asks her to drown it all in gravy.

The food is exceptional. I understand ladies have been slaving in the kitchen since four this morning. They could've been home with family, but this is more important.

Today, they'll serve a hundred and fifty. Last year they served almost that many. For this town, that's big.

“We feed anyone,” says one woman. “Nobody deserves to have a bad Thanksgiving, no matter how poor. You never know what people's circumstances are.”

The kid with…

Besides, happiness is a myth. The moment you think you have it, your transmission dies, your house blows up, and your loved ones leave.

A Sunday school teacher once told me that Thanksgiving was all about loving your neighbor as yourself.

But I think what she really meant to say was: Pilgrims and Indians.

Because that year, for our pageant, we crafted white paper collars, feathered headdresses, and flat-top hats. I ran around shirtless, carrying a tomahawk.

Things were going fine until Jimmy Dickie smuggled a bee-bee gun into school.

Jimmy lowered his musket at me and said, "Run like hell, Kaw-Liga."

The teacher confiscated his weapon, stripped him of his Pilgrim duties, and gave him the role of watermelon in our pageant. I don't know if pioneers of the New World had watermelons, but they did that year.

My friend Abe once told me he thought Thanksgiving was about family. I met Abe through a friend. Abe explained that his pregnant wife and two-year-old had died in an auto accident several years earlier.

Abe is a Cuban immigrant, so was his wife. Long ago, they arrived in Miami clutching a raft.

My wife invited him for Thanksgiving. He declined.

"No thanks," said Abe. "I volunteer at shelter in Pensacola. People who have no families need me, I understand them.”

Abe texted me this morning. He always does that during the holidays.

If you would've asked my uncle, he would've told you today was about fun. Then, he'd toss back a six-pack to prove it.

He hand-rolled his cigarettes and carried tobacco in a leather pouch. He used words like, "hot almighty," and, "yeah boy."

I remember sitting on the porch with him one autumn night. He blew smoke at the stars and said, "Don't ever stop having fun, boy, or smiling. Not even if your wife leaves you for another."

God rest his soul.

Yesterday, I asked a nine-year-old what she thought Thanksgiving was.

To quote her: "It's about happiness, and like, well, turkeys, uh, maybe, I dunno, just good stuff."


This old house does something to the family. It brings them closer, makes them giddy. And it makes me recall my own family holidays, and how sad they became after my father passed.

Fifteen years ago. It's the day before Thanksgiving. I'm younger. More energetic. Supple lower back.

There I am, trapped in the backseat of a Ford. An older man sits at the wheel, his wife beside him, a girl next to me.

The girl is holding my hand. She and I are getting married in a month. She's invited me to Keego, Alabama for Thanksgiving.

Her daddy yells something to us.

"JEEZUS DADDY," my soon-to-be bride hollers back. "DO YOU HAVE TO TALK SO LOUD?"




They're a close-knit family.

We're in the sticks. We drive through the woods. We pass tall pines, camellias, a pond with cattails growing around it.

When we arrive, we unload hundred-pound coolers into the kitchen. Her father makes the kitchen stove come alive. He flours the countertops, boils butterbeans, slices hardboiled eggs for giblet gravy. He's prepping for tomorrow.

He's cooking everything but

the cupboard doors.

This old house does something to the family. It brings them closer, makes them giddy. And it makes me recall my own family holidays, and how sad they became after my father passed.

"My mama was a good cook," her father explains, stirring collards. "THIS was her apron, and THIS was her skillet."

The whole family is reverent about the woman they call Granny. I learn about her. Like: how she wore housecoats, how she made biscuits by feel, owned a dishwasher but didn't trust it, loved fishing—but not on Sundays.

That night, we stay up late, laughing in the den. I fall asleep on the sofa. Her father covers me with a blanket.

The next morning—I'm stiff from cramped sleep. The sun isn't up yet. Nobody's awake. I wander through the old house. Floorboards creak. The heater smells like…

He emailed a few days ago. I haven't heard from him in forever. He sent photos of his young family. I've never seen a baby so fat, nor a family so fine.

He's coming home for Thanksgiving. First holiday in eleven years.

He's not the same person he was long ago. He's older, huskier, with four kids. Four.

God, where has time gone?

When we met, he was sixteen and so was I. We sat around an Andalusia campfire with six other reprehensible, intoxicated young men. He cried about his mama. It made the others uncomfortable.

So, I took him for a walk in the field to compose himself. He staggered beside me, singing in Spanish.

He is the oldest of eight siblings. His Mexican family shared a mobile home with another family. He slept on the floor.

One night, his father left town and never came back. His mother had two jobs. So did he. He was high-schooler by day, food-service grunt by night.

After high school, he joined the military.

The week before he left, his mother invited family and friends for supper. She made cabeza—a fancy word for cow head.

She sliced a sliver off the snout and handed it to me.

My buddy giggled, saying, "She wants you

to have the lips."

I'm honored, ma'am.

Then I watched him eat an eyeball like it was a Bing cherry.

That night, my pal's girlfriend sat beside him. She was blonde, blue-eyed. They'd been dating for a year. She was pregnant. Her family disowned her because they didn't care for his skin tone.

The two married. It was a courthouse ceremony. They spent a few days as newlyweds, then he left for basic training.

We lost touch.

Anyway, he's done well for himself. He turned out to be a cracker-jack with computers. They promoted him. He's traveled the world.

A few years ago, he bought his mother a two-bedroom house. It's a modest one, with granite countertops.

That must've felt good.

He emailed a few days ago. I haven't heard from him in forever. He sent photos of his young…

Wanda did the honors. She introduced Barbara to Our Savior, then cleaned the carcass on a plastic table.

North Carolina—I'm looking at Purple Mountains Majesty. The autumn here is so colorful it's heart-stopping.

Today, I drove through the Smokies. My wife wanted a live chicken for our Thanksgiving vacation. She's hellbent on it. She found a farm on Craigslist, located an hour's drive from our cabin.

And since I have nothing better to do than fish, she sent me across state lines.

After a scenic drive on Highway 74, I found myself in a small community where locals pronounce the word tire as "tar," and have brown spit.

My wife arranged for me to meet a chicken farmer at the Chevron station.

Her name was Wanda, and she is pure mountain. I couldn't tell how old she was. Her skin is rawhide, her hair is snow.

I followed her Jeep through ten miles of dirt. Her homestead consisted of two shacks and a barn, which sat on a sprawling automobile graveyard. This is a place where Chevys, Fords, and pickups go to die.

"What's with the cars?" I asked.

"My paw used to be

in the scrapyard business."

Then, Wanda led me to a series of coops where I selected a plump-looking red bird. She told me the hen's name was Barbara. She charged me thirty bucks for Barbara—which is highway robbery—then handed me an axe.

"You wanna do it?" she said. "Or you want me?"

I'm no stranger to poultry sacrifice. As a boy, we raised chickens. Once, a catering company called us for fifty-four birds. It took me two hours to kill them all, four hours to prep them, a day to clean the aftermath.

Wanda did the honors. She introduced Barbara to Our Savior, then cleaned the carcass on a plastic table.

"You like music?" Wanda asked.


"Well, you oughta come eat at my church, Thanksgiving. It's free, we got music."

Wanda explained that her church opens its doors for all God's children…

Truth told, that's hard for me to imagine—Daddy with such youthful ambition. The only man I ever knew was a steelworker who sweat buckets for a pittance and rode tractors after work.

I know. It's only a wristwatch. Even the jeweler says it's worthless. I've sent it off, paid four hundred bucks. They took it apart, replaced gears.


I don't know why I wear it. My father's watch is dead weight.

You have no reason to care about this, but my daddy wanted to be a pilot since childhood. When folks asked the redhead what he wanted to be, he gave the same four-word answer.

“I wanna fly airplanes.”

By high school it was a five-word answer. "I'm gonna fly Navy planes.”

Truth told, that's hard for me to imagine—Daddy with such youthful ambition. The only man I ever knew was a steelworker who sweat buckets for a pittance and rode tractors after work.

He could make dead trucks run, hum every hymn, and strike an arc with the best stick-welder.

He was no pilot.

As a young man, Daddy signed up to take the Navy aviation physical exam. The smooth-faced version of my father sat in the waiting room, knees bouncing.

I'll bet he glanced at this very

wristwatch every couple seconds. Because on that day, this thing would've been brand new. He paid a lot for it. It's an aviator's timepiece.

The Navy doctor checked his vision. Daddy had hawk eyes.

The next exam: his ears. My father was deaf on his left side. It took ninety seconds for the doc to show him the door.

He stood outside on the sidewalk. I don't know whether he cried, but I do know he threw his new watch on the pavement.

And that was the end. My father was landlocked. No one would ever know him as anything but a dirty-faced welder. Including his own boy.

I remember a family get-together. My cousin brought a young man she was dating. Blonde kid.

A Navy pilot.

He and Daddy talked until the wee hours. They sat on the back porch. He…

Theirs was an ordinary love. The kind easily missed by the restless. Some folks are so busy looking for nuclear explosions, they miss out on a good campfire.

Betty met her husband when she was eighteen. He was playing the guitar at a party. It was the kind of shindig your grandparents went to. Girls in cotton dresses, rough-handed boys, and sawdust floors.

“He was scrawny as you please,” she said. "Could sing like a bird."

She had to have him.

When he put the instrument down, she made a beeline for him. He was nervous. He avoided her. It boiled her blood. Betty wasn't about to let Bean-Pole get away.

During their first conversation, she found that he stammered. Badly.

It was his lifelong affliction. He'd tried joining the military, they rejected him. School was even worse. He could hardly spell his own name. Uttering a sentence was like delivering puppies.

But when he sang, words came easy.

They dated. He sang to her. She helped him learn to read. They studied late nights in his mother's kitchen, burning cigarettes, reading grade-school textbooks.

He wanted to lose his impediment. For her.

"He went to the preacher for prayer," she said. "But it didn't

work. He finally gave up. I just told him, it doesn't matter, John. I'd love you even if you were deaf and dumb."

Love him she did.

At nineteen, they got married at the Justice of the Peace's house. It was Christmas Eve night. He had a few days off from the pulp mill. They did what they could.

"He borrowed his brother's dress suit," she went on. "It was too big, he was so handsome."

She wore her nicest dress—white with yellow flowers. Their knees shook when they said their vows. For a gift, he bought her chocolate. As it turned out, she bought him the same thing.

Theirs was an ordinary love. The kind easily missed by the restless. Some folks are so busy looking for nuclear explosions, they miss out on a good campfire.

She says he kissed her often. He…

“I believe that man and his son were angels. If it wasn't for them, I'd never have realized my purpose. I'd still be a lonely old widow.”

Her husband died of prostate cancer. She grieved long and hard. People worried she'd never get over it. She told my aunt she didn't want to get over it.

So she didn't.

Not until the fateful day she went grocery shopping and noticed the homeless folks begging at a busy Atlanta intersection—a popular corner among people looking for handouts.

She'd ignored them in times past, like most do. But something touched her. It was an ordinary-looking man and his son.

He held a cardboard sign, reading: “Son is hungry.”

She drove by. Then, regret overwhelmed her. She turned around and put twenty bucks in his hand. If she would've had more, she would've given it.

“I couldn't bear to think that boy was going hungry,” she said.

She saw him a few days later. She gave more. And that's when the Mama Bear in her awakened. They were feelings she hadn't felt since her husband died.

“I'm a feeder,” she told me. “And I knew they weren't eating real, hot food.”

This would never do.

She went home and rediscovered

her apron. She cooked things like casseroles in foil dishes—and cornbread. It was the first time she'd used her kitchen since her husband.

The next day, she went to the intersection but didn't see the man nor his son. Instead, it was a young woman asking for cash.

"The food was still hot," she said. "So I gave it to her. You should'a seen her face. Was like I gave her gold.”


She returned to her kitchen. Twice as many foil dishes. Twice the cornbread.

Again she visited. No man. No son. This time, it was an older gentleman with girlfriend and a Labrador. She gave them paper bags. They God-blessed her.

She God-blessed back.

It wasn't long before her church friends got in on the action. A handful of ladies cooked every Wednesday.

Soon, they were opening the…