by Mike O’Mary
In honor of Thanksgiving, and in honor of the publication of MFA in a Box by my friend, John Rember, today’s post is a (mostly) true story called “John’s Thanksgiving.”
My best friend, John, will probably be mad at me for telling this story. But it’s such a great Thanksgiving story, I can’t resist.
This happened many years ago, during John’s first year of college. He had gone East from Idaho in order to attend a prestigious university. And now that his first school vacation—the Thanksgiving holiday—was at hand, he had decided to remain out East rather than travel back to Idaho to be with his family. He had some friends at school, but most of them had gone home for the holidays.
So come Thanksgiving Day, John woke up in a deserted dormitory building. That in itself would be enough to depress many people. Waking up alone on Thanksgiving Day. But he got up, got dressed and was doing fine. Until he called home to talk to his family members…all of whom were congregated at his parents’ home for a big turkey day feast.
One by one, John talked to everybody at his parents’ house.
“They were all having a great time,” said John. “I could imagine them sitting in the house warmed by the wood stove…the Salmon River and the Sawtooth Mountains off in the background…the perfect Thanksgiving Day setting. And there I was, talking on a pay phone in an empty dormitory 2,000 miles away.”
I envisioned John talking to his mother who, of course, missed him terribly and wished he had come home for Thanksgiving. John’s older brother, often the aloof intellectual, had come home for Thanksgiving, and he, too, said that he would miss John at the dinner table. Then John talked to a steady procession of aunts, uncles and family friends. All were having a good time—and all told John he should have come home.
All the while, John could hear the sounds of the holidays in the background. The nonstop hubbub of multiple conversations taking place simultaneously. The excited rise in pitch whenever another guest or relative arrived. The collective exclamation when the turkey was removed from the oven.
Finally, John talked to his father who had just returned from the traditional Thanksgiving Day pheasant hunt. His father probably said something to him like, “Missed you on the shoot, boy.”
John got through the phone conversation, got himself dressed in jacket and tie, and bravely went out for his turkey dinner at a nice restaurant near the university. But between the phone call and sitting alone at the restaurant, he found himself getting very depressed.
Fortunately, just a couple of tables away, there was an elderly couple. They were also having dinner alone. They saw John sitting by himself and invited him to join them for Thanksgiving dinner.
Unfortunately, John declined.
“That was so stupid,” he says now. “There I was, all alone at Thanksgiving, missing my parents, and there was this nice couple—probably with a kid in college somewhere who couldn’t be with them for the holidays—and they were nice enough to invite me to have dinner with them. And I was too stupid to accept.”
After that, John was so self-conscious that he rushed through his turkey dinner. He even skipped dessert so he could get out of the restaurant as quickly as possible. Instead, he stopped on the way back to his dormitory and bought a frozen pumpkin pie and a quart of Cool Whip.
When he got back to his room, he scarfed down all of the pie and whipped cream in less than ten minutes. When he was finished, he was so bloated, tired and emotionally exhausted that he practically passed out in his bed—empty pie pan at his side—and slept through the rest of Thanksgiving Day.
“It was the worst Thanksgiving I ever had,” he says. But don’t feel too sorry for John. He gets lots of sympathy from anybody who will listen to his grim holiday tale. When John visited last year, for example, we were so moved by this tale of pathos that we made a special Thanksgiving dinner for him while he was here—and it was only October! He won’t fess up, but I’m sure he’s parlayed his story into similar sympathy meals many times over.
But the real bright spot of this story is, of course, the nice elderly couple. They tried to do the right thing. And even though it didn’t work out that time, they are to be lauded.
It takes courage to reach across the gulf that separates one human being from another. We revel in our individuality, but there are times—and Thanksgiving is one such time—when we should be with other people to celebrate the things we have in common: occasional loneliness, yes; but also compassion, humor, an appreciation of beauty, and a once-a-year hankering for hot turkey and cold cranberry sauce.
So the next time somebody asks you to join them for dinner, think seriously about accepting. And if you are doing the asking—and if you happen to be asking a self-conscious young college student from Idaho—please persist.
Mike O’Mary is founding dreamer of Dream of Things, publisher of MFA in a Box, a Why to Write Book by John Rember. “John’s Thanksgiving” is taken from Wise Men and Other Stories, a collection of holiday-related stories by Mike O’Mary.