This is Maria’s story. Why she entrusted it to a hapless boy columnist like myself is beyond me. Either way, our story begins in a humble cafeteria, filled with homeless people.
They are all here for the free annual holiday meal. All who enter are given sanitizer, surgical masks, and optional vinyl gloves. Temperatures are taken at the door.
Maria volunteers here. She has been helping serve hot meals all week, and she volunteers here year round. This volunteering tradition started many years ago. It’s a long story.
When she was a kid her late father was an alcoholic. But when Maria hit age 13, he got sober. Her father started attending AA meetings and won his life back. The main thing her father learned from these support group meetings was that (a) each meeting had donuts, which increased your pant size considerably, and (b) helping others is the only thing worth doing with your life.
Oh, how she misses him.
The mess hall is overrun with people who are dressed in raggedy clothing. Some suffer from mental illness, some are addicted, others have breath that is 190 proof.
Maria stands behind the sneeze guard, dressed in facemask and hairnet. She serves them all steaming helpings. She is cheery, fun, and she flirts with the old guys because they get such a kick out of this.
One elderly man smiles at her. “Maria, I wish I were twenty years younger, I’d marry you.”
She throws out a hip and says, “And just what would YOU know about marriage, Mister Dan?”
“Hey, I know a lot. I’ve had three very successful marriages.”
She cackles. She gives him an extra helping of green beans and reminds him to behave.
Another old guy shuffles toward her. He wears a leather hat and a large backpack. His pants have gaping holes, he reeks of ammonia and body odor. She dishes his plate. The man’s eyes become pink and wet when he sees all the free food. He is unable to speak, he can only mumble.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Roger,” says Maria.
Next an old woman presents her plate. She is covered in scabs, she never stops fidgeting, and she wears a faded T-shirt. The woman won’t let the staff wash this filthy shirt because it was a gift from her daughter. Her daughter currently wants nothing to do with her, so this is all she has left.
The lady says, “Where’s your dad this year, Maria? He’s usually back there serving the food.”
Maria’s father has been dead since August, but the poor old woman is caught in a mental time loop and doesn’t remember.
“He’s resting,” says Maria.
“Good man, your dad. Helped me quit drinking. Five or six times.”
Now it’s Maria’s eyes that pinken.
This will be her first Thanksgiving without him. And it has been the worst year ever. Not just because of COVID, but because of everything. The year 2020 has been a bust, and she’s been a wreck.
But these people have it so much worse than she does. That’s what her father would have reminded her. He would have told Maria that many of these people will sleep outside tonight. Some will shelter in camps off the interstate, with American flags flapping from their tentpoles. Some will die from exposure this year. Or from coronavirus. Or alcohol. Or drugs. Or whatever.
This holiday meal could be their final one. This could be the last time a friendly face looks at them—really looks at them—and smiles.
After a few hours of work, Maria takes a break. She unties her apron and leaves the serving line. She joins a young man seated on the sofa in the corner. He is alone, watching the complimentary TV, holding his plate. The kid is missing all his front teeth. This is Brad.
Brad used to be in college before his mental illness got bad. Then his family cut him off because of a drinking problem that was ruining his life. A few years ago, Brad was sleeping behind a gas station one night when few young men decided to take turns beating him. This is how Brad lost his teeth.
“Hi, Brad,” Maria says.
Brad tries to suppress a grin, but fails. “We—We forgot to say grace,” he says, positioning the paper plate on his lap.
Brad has been sober for two years. Maria’s father helped him.
“No, we didn’t forget to say grace. We said it earlier, before you got here. Where were you? You’re never late for food.”
“I was at the Dollar Store.”
“The Dollar Store? Doing what?”
“Well…” Brad digs into his pocket. He removes a small gift-wrapped box with a frilly white ribbon and a notecard attached. The card has her name on it, in sloppy penmanship. She sees this gift and feels a prickling behind her eyes and nose.
“Oh, Brad, you didn’t.”
Maria opens the present. Inside is a tiny ornament. A red plastic heart. And there is a small Band-Aid stuck to this heart. An actual Band-Aid, like the kind you get from drugstores.
The young man points to the ornament. “See? I put the Band-Aid on it because that’s your heart, Miss Maria, and I just wanted you to know that I’m here for you if you need me.”
She covers her mouth.
Although this kid has so little, and has been through so much, he gives so deeply. What would her father have said in a moment like this? He was always so good at this kind of thing. He always knew exactly what to say.
Then it hits her. She takes Brad’s spindly hand in her own. She squeezes it and tells Brad to bow his head while she says grace.
“Dear God,” Maria begins. “No matter what this horrible year holds for us, please grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and give us the wisdom to know the difference.”
“Amen,” says Brad.
“Amen,” says Maria.
Amen, says the boy columnist.
Happy Thanksgiving to us all.
Deborah L Blount - November 26, 2020 6:27 am
Amen. Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for your daily devotionals. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I do both. But I always reflect on my life and those around me. God bless you.
oldlibrariansshelf - November 26, 2020 9:59 am
I like that Deborah calls your essays devotionals. You are devoted to those around you, those who read your blog, and those whose stories need to be told. You are a good man, Sean Dietrich.
Barbara - November 26, 2020 10:18 am
Thank you, Sean and Happy Thanksgiving to you and Jamie and your pups! Your writing warm my heart.
Jan Fincher - November 26, 2020 11:21 am
My 35-year old son that lives with us just showed me his 30 day coin that he got from AA last night. Four months ago he was a successful chef with a beautiful 4-year old boy and a baby girl on the way. And an addiction that destroyed all of that. Now he’s jobless, but hopeful. He’s pouring his life into those of his separated wife and kids and is truly happy. I’m so glad that he’s living with us and not on the street. He’s coordinated our Thanksgiving meal for us and will bless us with his gifts. It’s going to be a good day. God bless all of the Marias of the world. Her father is proud of her, watching down on her loving others like he did. Happy Thanksgiving.
Laura - November 26, 2020 11:26 am
Amen. That’s all I’ve got. Just Amen.
Karen Erwin-Brown - November 26, 2020 11:27 am
Happy Thanksgiving . yes, I have pools in my eyes.
Debbie g - November 26, 2020 11:54 am
Beautiful way to start our THANKS. Giving day Bless all
Judy Leonard - November 26, 2020 12:10 pm
Thank you! Happy Thanksgiving!
Leslie in NC - November 26, 2020 12:15 pm
I often feel that prickling behind my eyes and nose when I read your stories, Sean. Today’s was no exception. Beautiful and moving. Happy Thanksgiving to you & Jamie and the pups.
Catherine Mercogliano - November 26, 2020 12:41 pm
We are all connected in some or many ways to this story of life. This story pushes one over the edge of just standing by and feeling sorry for someone. It is time to
PS Much love and hope to your son Jan Fincher.
Debby - November 26, 2020 12:46 pm
Happy thanksgiving, Sean ❤️
leslie - November 26, 2020 12:47 pm
Like Leslie in NC, Leslie in AL too feels the prickling behind her eyes and on her cheeks. I will always remember this Thanksgiving story. You have recognized loss but reminded me that hope in all things prevails in the end. Happy Thanksgiving to you and all those who are blessed by your stories.
Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - November 26, 2020 12:59 pm
Amen, says this old man
Heidi - November 26, 2020 1:04 pm
Starting Thanksgiving Day with tears of gratitude. Thank you for all the reminders of humanity this year. Blessings to you, Jamie, Otis & Thelma Lou.❤️
Kevin R. - November 26, 2020 1:04 pm
I’m thankful for this hapless boy columnist that brings light into an otherwise cloudy day. He reminds us that there is a lot of good in the world, we just have to be wiling to see it. Thank you Sean Dietrich for being a friend to us all.
Bob Brenner - November 26, 2020 1:12 pm
Thanks, yes God bless us all!❤️
Ann - November 26, 2020 1:18 pm
Amen!….and so thankful for what we do have and prayers for others.
THANK YOU Sean for sharing this beautiful timely story🙏🏻❤️
PK Forehand - November 26, 2020 1:23 pm
Happy Thanksgiving to all. I appreciated your column this morning.
jasmelliot1 - November 26, 2020 1:36 pm
Phil (Brown Marlin) - November 26, 2020 1:44 pm
That’s what it’s all about, man. We should all say Grace for Maria and everyone like her. God bless Brad, also. Not all those down on their luck are bums, and it’s not our place to judge them, only to feed and love them. Maria learned this from her dad. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.
Frank Shaffer - November 26, 2020 1:54 pm
Sean, Maria…thank you for sharing this perspective. We don’t have opportunities like this in South Alabama where I live to serve in this kind of way. However, my heart is full knowing that someone is blessing others with kindness today. Blessings to you both!!!
Jean - November 26, 2020 1:55 pm
Now my eyes are pink……Happy Thanksgiving and may there be more people like Maria as well as her dad.
Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder - November 26, 2020 2:00 pm
A very touching story indeed and as for that Band-Aid, that is valid for a lot of people – visible and invisible!
Happy Thanksgiving to you and may it last 365 days a year.
Connie - November 26, 2020 2:04 pm
Thank you for the beautiful story this morning. There are so many people suffering this year, and there are not enough Marias. God bless you and Jamie.
Jan - November 26, 2020 2:06 pm
One of the very best stories ever told. Thank you and your Dad, Maria. Thank you, Sean. God bless you each and every one – Mister Dan, Roger, Brad and all the other children of God whose names we do not know.
Bill in Tennessee - November 26, 2020 2:07 pm
Oh Sean…. oh my. You touched me with this one. Through a higher power whom I call God, I got sober 38 years ago through AA, and I now have my life back… a wonderful wife, had a great career before I retired, and still have a great life now. The acts of generosity and charity I have seen from my fellow AA people could fill a book, and my experience has made me so grateful for everything in my life.
I have been on 12-Step calls (going to a soul in need who wants to, but can’t, quit drinking) that showed me exactly where my life was heading before AA found me and lifted me up. I have seen miracles in “the rooms” of AA.
Thank you for this Thanksgiving gift.
Ernie Kelly - November 26, 2020 2:19 pm
Not fair getting me all misty twice in one week. Thankful a friend shared your blog with me and now I subscribe. Bless you.
Ted - November 26, 2020 2:31 pm
Happy Thanksgiving Sean!!!
Dot - November 26, 2020 2:32 pm
Thank you. We are all so blessed. 🤗🍂🍁🍂🍁
Becca - November 26, 2020 2:37 pm
Thank you again for reminding me that people need kindness and a smile ALWAYS! And for letting us know how one person CAN make a difference! I am TRULY blessed! Happy Thanksgiving, Sean and Jamie!
Bobbie - November 26, 2020 2:38 pm
Oh Sean…how touching, how beautiful on this special day of thanksgiving. Puts it all in perspective. Just look around. We have a lot of homeless in our area. You have such a way of painting a picture with your words. Also, that from your words your readers know they come from your huge heart! Overflowing with love and compassion for your fellow man. God bless you and yours on this special day and the days ahead. Such a strange world we live in now, but we will adapt and persevere with God’s Help.
You have a special gift of encouragement with your writing…written so we all can apply it to ourselves. Thank you Sean for the blessing you are to so many. Have a wonderfully blessed day🦃❤️🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸
Joretta Parker - November 26, 2020 2:44 pm
This brought tears to my old eyes. I read your column every morning before I start my day. Bless you for having such a sweet mind and the gift of sharing your words with with us.
joan moore - November 26, 2020 2:59 pm
Thank you for sharing this story. Do you create this, or are they real people we can remember when we feel like the world owes us something? Always love
Donna - November 26, 2020 3:06 pm
Dee Thompson - November 26, 2020 3:10 pm
Beautiful story. My dad was a big supporter of the Salvation Army, and the first year my brother couldn’t come home for Thanksgiving, Mom and Dad and I all helped serve the meal. I was young and really not happy about being there but I did it to please my father. I did not have Maria’s wisdom and kindness. God Bless people who are like her! Happy Thanksgiving, Sean!
Maggie Kruger - November 26, 2020 3:18 pm
Now it’s Two times today you made me cry…
Dean - November 26, 2020 3:20 pm
Tears in my eyes reading this. Thank God for people that volunteer and serve others. Sad today my first Thanksgiving with out my husband of 58 years. I am blessed with family that are helping me
Brenda Turner-Griffin - November 26, 2020 3:24 pm
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your wife. When I count my blessings and look upward and say my daily prayer of thanks, it is always after I have read your column and laughed or cried! Thank you for your words. You give me joy!
Becky Estes - November 26, 2020 3:41 pm
Thankful for your column every day. It is always the best part of my morning. Have a blessed Thanksgiving.
NancyB. - November 26, 2020 3:46 pm
Happy Thanksgiving! 🦃Your gift of story telling blesses my life and my soul each day!
Nita Cordle - November 26, 2020 3:58 pm
Nothing better than kindness and love…
Sally Brown - November 26, 2020 4:15 pm
Annie Sommers - November 26, 2020 4:55 pm
Happy Thanksgiving Sean & Jamie. Love all your stories and your remembering people that are hurting.
David Jones - November 26, 2020 5:23 pm
Judy Mercer - November 26, 2020 6:01 pm
Your columns are always touching and meaningful…today’s especially, and straight to the heart. Thank you, Sean, and Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.
Linda Moon - November 26, 2020 6:26 pm
Someone I know and love who has a big friendly smile helps others who are without homes, even today, on Thanksgiving. He misses his father, too, and talks to him often where he is resting. Serenity Prayers and Band-Aids are needed in abundance, and I’m offering both right now to Brad, Maria, and the columnist. And Thankfulness to all on This Day!
MAM - November 26, 2020 6:58 pm
Through leaking eyes, I write this to thank you for your always insightful words! You are a gem to all of us who regularly read you. Happy Thanksgiving to Sean, Jamie and your sweet dogs!
Gary - November 26, 2020 7:30 pm
Tim House - November 26, 2020 8:14 pm
Roxanne - November 26, 2020 8:27 pm
Amen and amen.
didyouseethis - November 28, 2020 2:07 am
Ingrid Morak - November 28, 2020 2:45 pm
As the mom of young men, my heart goes out to Brad. I wish there were some way to help this kind-hearted soul change his life for the better.
Martha - November 30, 2020 5:45 pm
This story makes me count my blessings!