The call would usually come late in the afternoon. In clipped tones the long-distance operator asked, “Collect call from Leonard. Will you accept the charges?”
Decades before you could make a long distance call yourself, at a time when smartphones were the province of science fiction, people relied on telephone operators to bridge the distance between somewhere and home.
My mother usually refused the collect call from my dad, a long-distance, over-the-road truck driver. Not because she didn’t want to talk to him. We were desperate to hear his voice. My parents simply couldn’t afford it. Instead, they developed an elaborate code to convey messages. “That’s OK, operator,” we could hear him say in the background. “I’ll try again on Monday.” Message delivered. He would be home on Monday. And for a moment, listening on extension phones, we could hear his voice — cheery, buoyant, alive.
But on Thanksgiving, my mother always accepted the call.
My dad was hardly ever home on Thanksgiving. He was almost always crossing a vast stretch of highway, a man with a 10th grade education, earning a living in the only way he could.
He would call after eating Thanksgiving dinner at a truck stop, a 24-hour haven on a dark ribbon of highway stretching toward an endless horizon. I imagined him sitting at the counter, alone, a heavy-set, tired waitress pouring cup after cup of coffee. A slice of pie, maybe two, then a phone call home before hitting the road.
The call usually came just before we sat down to dinner. My mom, my two brothers, and me. Our little table, set with four plates and a small turkey. For me, the flavor of Thanksgiving wasn’t sage or cranberry. It was loneliness.
Hearing my friends’ Thanksgiving plans only added to my sadness. Not only did they have their dads at home, they often had tables overflowing with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Not us. And by the time I was 18, our dad had dropped dead from the hard work. Even the best long-distance operator can’t place a phone call to heaven.
What emerged from that time was a sense of what Thanksgiving’s abundance was all about. Not abundance in food, abundance in loved ones. A table overflowing with people.
The memory of those lonely holidays was a scar, but also served as a spur, an impetus, driving many life choices. My brother and I didn’t have close cousins, but we were determined that our kids would. So, we and our cooperative spouses made sure that our seven children — his three, my four — were raised like siblings (our other brother is single and lives out of state). That meant holidays and many ordinary days, spent in the pleasure of each other’s company. It also meant happy chaos when the kids were little. Our mother died at a relatively young age too, but she lived long enough to know every grandchild and savor her growing family.
Over the years, several friends became part of our holiday scene, friends with no family in town. We became family for each other, their children blending seamlessly into the energetic cousin scene. They were always grateful to join us, but perhaps now, in reading this, they will understand that what they gave me is so much greater than what we ever gave them.
They contributed to our overflowing table. You don’t get to rewrite your childhood but, if you are lucky, you can revisit it from a different vantage point — parent, grandparent — and fill in what was missing.
We can think childhood is long gone — when I look in the mirror I know it is. But it’s shadows, memories, whisper-thin threads accompany us all the time. That, I believe, is the secret to the smash TV series, “This is Us.” The Pearson family shows us that the past is never really gone. It animates us, motivates us, haunts us, inspires us in the present. Sometimes we realize it, often we don’t.
This Thanksgiving will be a very special one for our family. For the first time in many years, our four kids, their spouses and children, AND my brother and sister-in-law’s three kids, spouses and children will all be together. We usually hit about 80 percent for holidays; getting every last one of us under one roof is a real feat. The lonely little table of four has become a table(s) of 31!
The fragile family tree my parents struggled to nurture has yielded fruit beyond anything they could have imagined.
And so, on this Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for abundance. Abundance of health, abundance of good fortune, but most of all, abundance of family, the abundance I ached for as a child, and that has been so richly given to me.