Rob looked up from his laptop, from which he was working at the table, his eyebrows raised.
“Might I ask what you are talking about?” he said slowly, sensing that he was about to walk into dangerous territory.
“I told you. I’m not cooking for Thanksgiving. Millie can stay here with me. We won’t mind if you decide to go home. But I’m not cooking.” Olivia had a determined look on her face. She hung her coat to drip dry in the laundry room, then went back into the kitchen and started to unload the dishwasher.
“Wait a minute,” Rob said, trying to make sense of his wife. “You don’t want to cook Thanksgiving dinner and you want me to go home without you?”
Olivia placed a stack of plates onto the shelf next to the sink a little harder than was needed and they made a protesting clunk.
“Why should you miss out on Thanksgiving dinner just because your wife does not feel inclined to cook this year?” she said in a shrill voice, moving on to the glasses.
Rob got up nervously from his seat and took the tall glass from Olivia’s hand before she could cause any damage.
“Here, let me do these. Sit down, Livy.”
An exaggerated sigh escaped from Olivia’s mouth, like the long, slow release of a deflating balloon. She sat down at the table while Rob began to put the clean dishes away.
“Do you want to tell me what this is all about?” he asked.
Olivia began to pluck tiny pieces of lint off her sweater, taking a few moments before she answered.
“I used to love Thanksgiving,” she finally said, her voice small and contemplative. “It was actually my favorite holiday, because it’s the only one that hasn’t been commercialized….it’s still pure, you know?”
Rob nodded his head in agreement, encouraging his wife to continue.
“At least it used to seem like that to me. Now I just feel the pressure of making sure it’s perfect, having all this amazing food, surrounded by all our loved ones. But that isn’t the way our Thanksgiving is going to be, or even have the chance of being.”
She looked over to her husband, who had stopped putting the dishes away. She began to crumple, putting her face in her hands.
“I know we can’t afford to go home and be with our family for Thanksgiving. And I don’t really want to cook all that food just for us. It seems like such a waste of time and effort. And I am just so tired. Work has been crazy and I haven’t even had time to go shopping….”
The soft padding of tiny feet came running into the kitchen, followed by a little voice.
“Mommy! You’re home!”
“Hi, baby!” Olivia exclaimed warmly and picked up the little girl. “How’s Mommy’s girl? Did you have a good day?”
Rob finished unloading the dishwasher while Millie told her mother all about the game she learned at preschool, how Joshua was not being nice and wouldn’t share, and how she wanted a stuffed purple pony like Sydney so they could play ponies together.
The buzzer on the stove went off, indicating the frozen lasagna was done warming in the oven. The girls set the table while Rob made a salad, then the family sat down to eat.
While Millie pushed her noodles around her plate, Rob looked at Olivia seriously.
“What do you think is the most important part of Thanksgiving?” he asked her.
Olivia paused for a moment and put her fork down. “I suppose it’s the time that we take to be grateful for all that we are blessed with. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
“So, as long as we make that time for gratitude, the spirit of Thanksgiving is not lost, no matter what we eat for dinner or with whom, right?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Olivia said thoughtfully.
Rob looked a little hesitant, but decided to plunge forward regardless. “I have an idea,” he said, “from something I saw on my way home from work yesterday….”
Five minutes later, Olivia’s face was radiant with excitement. “This is perfect,” she said.
“Let’s make this Thanksgiving different than any we’ve ever had before.”
Thanksgiving morning dawned bright and clear in Seattle, the sun casting its cool white rays on the previously sodden leaves and ground. There was a sharp tang in the air as Olivia and Rob bundled their little girl into their compact car. Maybe the sun finally chased the rain away, Olivia thought to herself.
The family pulled up to a square, brick building about twenty minutes later. A letter board next to the front door read, “Give thanks for a little, and you will find a lot. Happy Thanksgiving from Sophie’s Haven.”
A short, plump woman with a dirty, flour-covered apron bustled up to Olivia as they opened the front door. Her face was rosy and pleasant, despite her harassed expression.
“Good morning!” she called warmly, wiping her hands on her apron. “We won’t be serving dinner until 2:00, but you are welcome to make yourselves comfortable until it is time to eat.” She motioned to several families who were already sitting at tables, playing games and talking happily.
Olivia flushed and quickly explained, “Oh no, ma’am! We aren’t here for dinner. We would like to help, if we can. I’m so sorry I did not phone ahead of time, but we only thought of doing this last night.”
The woman beamed happily at Olivia.
“Of course, of course! We are always in need of extra helping hands!” she said. “I’m Sophia Lenhart, but you can call me Sophie. Everyone here does.”
Sophie took them back into the kitchen and introduced them to a handful of people dressed in similar aprons. She then assigned Rob to set the tables in the main room with the large stack of paper products which were sitting on one of the counters. He began carting them out the room, followed closely by Millie. Olivia was handed over to a woman named Rosario, who was busy boiling potatoes. As she peeled and sliced potatoes, Olivia heard a mix of different languages being spoken around the kitchen. In addition to the heat of the ovens, the varied accents punctuated by hearty laughter filled the room with companionable warmth. She chatted with Rosario as they worked.
Rosario was from Ecuador. She lived at the Haven with her ten-year-old daughter Claudia. Rosario had married an American whom she met at a textile factory where she was working in Arizona. They had a daughter together, but after years of abuse, Rosario decided to take her child and run. She ended up in Seattle, where Sophie took them in at the Haven. She was helping her to retrain with new skills so she could support herself and her child.
Working quietly in the corner, pulling steaming rolls from the oven, was a tiny man named Daraja. He smiled broadly as he worked, but there was an unmistakable sadness in the depth of his eyes. Rosario told Olivia how he had escaped from the terror of the civil war in Nigeria, but not until after he had witnessed the brutal massacre of his entire family. He spoke very little english but was improving daily as he took classes at the community center.
Stationed at the center island of the kitchen was a group of women rolling out pie crusts and assembling the fillings. They laughed and talked with each other loudly. In the center was Sophie’s daughter, Hattie, just as round and merry as her mother. When a little boy wandered into the kitchen and attempted to snitch a slice of sugared apple from her large red bowl, she swatted at him affectionately and told him he must wait. But she then gave him a generous fresh slice from the apple she was peeling and shooed him out the door.
“How many families live here at the Haven?” Olivia asked Rosario, after she watched the smiling child exit the kitchen with his tiny hands full of apple.
“The Haven can house about 40 people,” Rosario said, wiping her brow with the back of her hand. “But we feed around 60-80 people every day. The Haven was organized to nurture and rehabilitate displaced families, but there are so many others in the community who need help. Sophie cannot turn anyone away.”
Olivia looked at the people who were working side by side in the kitchen, each bringing their unique skills and backgrounds to the effort. Sophie truly was a remarkable woman to organize this.
Rosario’s daughter Claudia played with Millie the rest of the morning, allowing Olivia and Rob to focus on what needed to be done in the kitchen. Finally as the last dish was placed on the banquet table in the hall, the clock struck 2:00 and it was time to eat. All was silent as a man named Nikko offered a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving, his wife and five children standing next to him with their heads reverently bowed. They had just lost their home and all their belongings to a devastating fire, yet the entire family was safe. The prayer was heartfelt and sincere. Tears pricked the corners of Olivia’s eyes as she listened to his humble thanks. She thought of her own blessings: her family, her beautiful home, the food which filled her refrigerator, and the closet which held enough clothing to warm the shoulders of at least five women. She was truly blessed. Olivia offered her own silent prayer of thanksgiving, along with the plea that she never forget what all she had.
Olivia and Rob, along with many other workers from the kitchen, spent the next hour ensuring that everyone in the banquet room was adequately fed. Finally, as Olivia was transferring the last bowl of mashed potatoes into the serving dish, Sophie approached them.
“Please, you must eat,” she said, waving her arm to encompass the entire table still laden with food. “We have plenty.”
Olivia and Rob looked at each other uncertainly. They had been so busy serving all those who came into the hall, they hadn’t even thought about when they would eat. Olivia felt guilty taking any food from the families who needed it so much more than she did. Upon their polite refusal, however, Sophie would not hear of it.
“No one leaves the Haven hungry,” she said, “And that includes you folks as well!”
Olivia and Rob reluctantly agreed to eat, and they were quickly welcomed by the families who had already had their fill to join their table.
Finally, after the last crumb was swept up and the final dish was put away, Olivia and Rob gathered up their daughter and began to head for the door. Olivia had promised Rosario that she would return the following week to talk about different job opportunities that she would look into for her. And after learning that the facility was run completely on donations from the community, Rob had started to assemble a list of possible ways to advertise for more help. He arranged for a meeting with Hattie, the public relations director for the Haven, to discuss more options to explore.
Sophie approached them as they put on their coats, her gray eyes glistening with unshed tears. “Thank you so much for coming,” she gushed and embraced each of them in a warm grandmotherly hug. “I can’t tell you how much it means to the families and residents of the Haven to have people in the community involved. Sometimes they feel so isolated.”
Olivia took both of Sophie’s hands in her own and looked into the eyes of this woman who gave and gave. Quietly she said, “We aren’t going to let that happen again. We’ll see you next week.”
The drive home was quiet. Millie was asleep in her booster seat. Running around with all the kids at the Haven had worn her out and she had made lots of new friends. Like her daughter, Olivia felt that she had also made some very special friends.
Olivia stretched her hand over to rest on Rob’s as it sat on the gear shift.
“Thank you,” she said.
Rob glanced over at her, surprised. “Thank you for what?”
Olivia sighed, a catch in her throat. She thought of Rob, how selflessly he worked for their family. She thought of Millie, and what a joy it was to be her mother. She thought of her own parents and the countless ways they had loved and served her. And she thought of her new friends, and the meaning they could help bring to her life.
“Thank you for giving me back my Thanksgiving,” she said softly.
Rob smiled: his slow, intimate smile that made Olivia feel warm and loved. He held on to her hand the rest of the drive home.
HAVE A HAPPY THANKSGIVING!