Shay stared at the empty rooms. They appeared much smaller than the pictures online. Even smaller than the pictures she carried in her mind. Dust settled in the corners of a home that once was filled with so much love. These rooms were always filled with people, mismatched furniture and the feeling that they would always be home.
She moved through the foyer into the living room and stared at the space where the Christmas tree was always placed. Moving into the dining room that doubled as family room, there was still an indentation in the floor from the pressure of her grandfather’s recliner that held him many a day while he watched Westerns, Godzilla movies and baseball. She wrapped her arms around herself in a hug at the thought.
She would sit on a stool next to the chair on Saturday afternoons. Neither of the two said much, but just being close to Granddaddy was enough for Shay growing up. His presence reassured her; she felt he would always be there to protect her. He had been gone nearly five years now, but she still felt he was watching over her.
She began moving towards the kitchen when she glanced out the back window and was transported back twenty years earlier. Before she watched movies with her grandfather, she would sit on that back porch with her grandmother, shucking corn or snapping peas, helping to prep Sunday dinner. One day, when she was 13 or 14, they sat on the porch snapping green beans and Grandma stopped humming and stared at her.
“What’s wrong Grandma?”
“Nothing child. Just looking at you and wondering if I’ll be round long enough to see you grow into a beautiful woman?”
“Don’t say that Grandma.”
“Don’t say what? Child, death is natural. We never know when it’s coming. I pray it’s a long ways off, but when God says your work is done, it’s done.”
“I know that Grandma, but I don’t want us to think about that. Specially on a beautiful day like today.”
Shay was right, it was a beautiful day; the temperature was around 82 degrees, with a light breeze and the sun was shining directly on her and her grandmother.
“Death don’t care nothing about no pretty day. God makes days like this to remind us of his love. Rainy days remind us of his power. But every day he remind us that he God.”
Staring out at that porch, Shay muttered those words to herself, Every day he reminds us that he’s God. She smiled at the thought. She smiled at her grandmother’s wisdom. She entered into the space where her grandmother’s wisdom was most often heard, the kitchen. It was in this small kitchen that her family was held together. Just about every Sunday and of course each holiday her family gathered at her grandparents’ house to celebrate. But, in this kitchen, her grandmother, great-aunt Joyce, mother and aunts would laugh, fuss and cook the most delicious meals.
Her mind traveled back to Thanksgiving 2004; she was a senior in high school and starting to believe that Thanksgiving with the family may be coming to an end. She would be going away to college the next fall and was leaning heavily towards Stanford University in California. Sure, she also considered NYU, Spelman and Howard, but the West Coast college seemed like a perfect fit to her. She and her parents returned from a visit a few days ahead of the holiday and she loved everything about the school; the campus, facilities, the professors, the weather all lined up with what she wanted in a college. The cost was not an issue either, there were two scholarships that would pay her tuition in full. Her parents were more than willing to pay for the room and board, despite the cost of missing their only child.
She looked around at her family, the aging faces of her grandparents, the growth spurt her cousin Tyrell had since the 4th of July and felt confident in her decision to pursue her college education and a career as a screenwriter in California.
“Make some room for Shay in the kitchen Joyce,” Grandma instructed.
“It’s bout time you let your baby do some work,” Joyce shot back.
It was well known that Shay had been her grandmother’s favorite. Shay’s mother and sister had been in the kitchen for holidays long before they were Shay’s age. But Shay, the word had never come for her to help on the big meals. She knew how to cook of course; her mother and grandmother began teaching her when she was around 8, but here was her chance to join the women for a holiday meal.
“Shay, I want you to do the yams and mashed potatoes. When your mama done with those pies, make a sock-it-to-me cake. It’s your Uncle Jimmy’s favorite.”
Shay smiled, tied her hair into a ponytail, rolled up her sleeves, washed her hands and found a space next to her Aunt Pam. Pam scooted to her left a little and then bumped Shay with her right hip and followed quickly with a smile. Shay stood shoulder to shoulder with three generations of Franklin women. Sure, the men in the family all knew their way around the kitchen and Granddaddy was world-class on the grill, but Thanksgiving dinner was a tradition for the Franklin women. It was a rite of passage, a declaration of womanhood once you were given an assignment on the menu for Thanksgiving.
That Thanksgiving was special for more reasons than being her first time in the kitchen with the women of the family. It was also Aunt Joyce’s last time with the family. Aunt Pam found her lying on her bedroom floor two weeks later when she went to pick her up for church. She had a heart attack that morning and was lost before the ambulance arrived.
Losing his only sister took a toll on Granddaddy. She could see the pain in his face and often caught him staring in the direction of a picture of the two of them near the television. His movements slowed dramatically over the next couple of years and his health took a sharp decline. However, he took his first plane ride ever to Palo Alto for her graduation four years later.
She never forgot the look on his face when he saw her wearing her cap and gown. Proud wasn’t a strong enough a word to describe his beaming on that sunny afternoon. She made it home for Thanksgiving dinner that year and she remembers his blessing of the meal all these years later:
We come to you as a family; broken, bruised, imperfect, but together. I ask you to continue to bless the hands joined at this table and let those blessings extend to each and every person we encounter. Father, you have held this family together through your Word and love, I pray you continue, as we continue to live in the spirit of Thanksgiving. We give thanks today for your grace and mercy, we give thanks for your son Jesus Christ and his ultimate sacrifice for us. We also give thanks to loved ones who’ve gone on to Glory and the lessons in life and love they taught us. I thank you Father for family. I thank you Father for wisdom. I thank you Father for my wife. We thank you Father for the food prepared and each hand from harvest to plate. In Jesus name, my family says Amen!
Standing in that kitchen, it seemed like a lifetime since her family had all come together for a holiday. In fact, the last time she remembered the women in her family cooking together was right after Granddaddy’s death. It was a particularly sad time and a lot of tough decisions had to be made. It was decided that the house was to be sold and her grandmother would move in with Pam. That lasted almost a year before a stroke caused partial paralysis and the family decided to place her in a nursing home.
She made numerous trips up from her home in Atlanta, but the family just didn’t seem the same. It seemed like each sibling was holding their own holiday dinners with their children and grandchildren, with her grandmother being rotated from house to house.
It was all too much for Shay. It shamed her to see what the family had become. She even stayed away for nearly a year, claiming her workload was too heavy to take a vacation. However, she did manage to make it for Grandma’s 90th birthday, which the family held in a restaurant close to the nursing home. She looked into her grandmother’s eyes as the side of her face unaffected by the stroke worked its way into a smile, happy to be surrounded by family, by love.
Now, she stood in the house that meant nothing but love to her, watching it come alive with her memories. She reached into her purse and fumbled through its contents for her phone. After nearly twenty seconds, she finally found it and quickly sent a text to her family saying that Thanksgiving dinner will be held at her new house this year. She put the phone away, took another look around the room, smiled and released a deep breath.
“Thank you Jesus.”