The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on …*
Thanksgiving, perhaps this country’s most enduring holiday. My husband and I will be among those weary travelers standing in long lines at the airport, cramming our bodies into crowded and uncomfortable cabins, while others pack the trunks of their cars with suitcases to drive for hours along our busy highways, all to celebrate the Thanksgiving, a time of remembering, of gratitude and family.
Thanksgiving and family are nearly synonymous in my mind. I grew up in a small Northern California town where nearly all of my father’s extended family lived. Thanksgiving was a time dominated by the Bray family: it was common to have as many as fifty or sixty relatives gather for the Thanksgiving meal at my Aunt Jennie’s house. The kitchen table was laden with food, perhaps the biggest turkey I’ve ever seen, bowls of grandmother’s oyster stuffing, side dishes, and what seemed to be an unending array of cakes and pies. Jennie’s spacious living room was transformed into a dining hall for the occasion. An assortment of tables and chairs were placed around the room, and everyone was assigned a seat by age group. I remember how proud I was to be transferred to the adult table at age 13, leaving my younger cousins and siblings behind at the children’s tables.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women…
The adult table was a place of history and laughter, where I delighted in hearing the stories told by my father and uncles, ones of great-grandparents, grandparents and the childhood adventures he and his rambunctious brothers and sisters shared. There, as food was passed and eaten among the lively chatter, I learned about my heritage, what it meant to have a deeply held sense of place and belonging. I didn’t know then how much I would miss those family Thanksgivings until after I became an adult, married and moved to Canada, far from the place I knew as home. For years afterward, I experienced an unmistakable longing to return to California each November, sit again at the family table, and hear the family stories, ones I knew by heart.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks…
By the time my husband and I returned to California 23 years later, my cousins had married and had families of their own; my aunts and uncles were getting old, and some had died. The Thanksgiving of my childhood was just a memory. I felt the ache of loss for all the family celebrations I’d missed in the years I lived so far away.
The first Thanksgiving after our return, my parents drove 350 miles south to spend Thanksgiving with us in our new home. My daughters were grown and, like I had once done, were living far from California. As my parents arrived, they admired the persimmon trees growing along the front walkway of our home, all of them heavy with ripe, orange fruit. My mother was eager to take some home for her Christmas baking, and we were happy to give her as many as she wished. While we set about preparing the Thanksgiving Day dinner, she charged my father with the task of picking the fruit. He was nearly seventy-five, but still agile, and after muttering a few complaints under his breath, dutifully climbed the Fuji persimmon tree and went to work. After an hour or so, he’d filled several grocery bags with the harvest, leaving every branch but one bare of fruit. A single ripe persimmon hung on the topmost branch, just out of my father’s reach.
Dad was a bit of a perfectionist, and his inability to pick that last persimmon gnawed at him. He sat on the deck afterward, puffing on a cigarette and gazed at the tree. His foot tapped impatiently on the tile as I sat beside him.
“Damn it Sharon,” he said half-apologetically, “I sure wish I could havepicked that last persimmon.”
“But you got all the rest of the fruit, Dad. That’s amazing.”
“But I didn’t get that one,” he sighed, shaking his head.
That was the moment we saw the squirrel, his bushy tail twitching, sitting at the base of the tree and eyeing the persimmon. Before either of us knew it, he scampered up the trunk to the top branch. Holding the persimmon between his paws, he gave it a few tugs, wresting it free. He clamped the fruit between his teeth and quickly disappeared down the side of the tree with his trophy.
My father chuckled and stubbed out his cigarette. “Now,” he said, grinning at me, “I can relax.”
It was a moment between us I’ve never forgotten. I had no way of knowing that just a year later, my father would die of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day. Even as the holiday approaches these many years later, my heart aches a little. Like any of you who experiences the loss of a beloved parent, I wasn’t ready to lose him. Yet when I recall that autumn day and remember my father conceding victory to a small red squirrel perched on the topmost branch of a persimmon tree, I always smile.
Perhaps the world will end here at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
My father loved a good story, and just weeks before his death, we laughed together as we remembered that tenacious little squirrel. Afterward, he was quiet, then he felt the need to repeat his wishes for how we dealt with his death. “I don’t want you sitting around crying when I die,” he said. “I want you to have a party. Invite all my family and friends, and have plenty of Jack Daniels on hand. Pour everyone a double Jack and tell stories, ones that will make you laugh.” And we did, sharing stories and laughter just as he wanted us to do. There were tears, yes, but, the stories and laughter captured the essence of my father best.
I keep the memory of him and the day he picked the persimmons close to my heart. We still raise a glass to my father at our Thanksgiving meal, but always, in late November, I buy a single Fuji persimmon.
A year ago, I gave a writing prompt to the participants in an autumn workshop as the Thanksgiving holidays grew near; it’s one I offer to you this week: Imagine you are the last storyteller in your tribe. What is the story you most want to tell? Write that story; choose form the ones you carry in your heart.
I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.
*(Excerpts from the poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo. In: The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994)