My father pulled me close in the chill of a Minnesota Thanksgiving. It was my first time visiting him since he vanished. Apparently, telling a child her father was in rehab was far worse than letting her believe he simply disappeared. He quietly pointed out those he knew waiting in line at the soup kitchen by name and an abbreviated history of how long each had been on the street and the nightmares each faced.
After hearing the stereotypes surrounding the homeless, I was a little afraid. I didn’t understand why, exactly, we were spending Thanksgiving with druggies and crazies. But I knew better than to ask.
When it came to people, my father had a talent. He listened. No one had a story that bored him, and no one had a story he didn’t have time to hear. Sometimes I thought he made the stories up, but then I would witness him charming a tale from a stranger. Once, we met a man on the Metra, whose duffle bag began to move. My father struck up a conversation, and within minutes, he unzipped the bag to reveal a coiled albino python. He let me feel the tickle of its tongue on my fingers.
While my father never read us bedtime stories, he did give us fairytales. But those are stories for another day. There would be no fairytale this Thanksgiving day, which I could tell was important to him.
It wasn’t important because it was Thanksgiving; it was important because he was sharing a part of himself without knowing if it would be accepted. I didn’t know exactly why it was important at the age of 12, but I sensed the day would be special. And I wanted to play a role in making him happy.
Inside the kitchen, Thanksgiving meal preparations were almost complete as I awaited my duty. Maybe I would get to serve the turkey, stuffing, or mashed potatoes. Those were the essential Thanksgiving dishes, the ones most craved. Instead, I received applesauce duty.
Slushy applesauce dumped into a large, clear plastic container set on a table outside of the kitchen. By itself. I wouldn’t even be near the juicy turkey slices or buttery smashed potatoes.
Even though I wasn’t pleased with my assignment, I still didn’t want to mess it up. I was instructed to put one scoop on each plastic tray unless someone didn’t want it. I will be the best applesauce scooper ever, I thought. I won’t spill any. And everyone who wants applesauce will get it.
As men and women filed through the line, there were very few who didn’t want my applesauce. I smiled; they smiled. Some wished me a “Happy Thanksgiving” while others said “thank you.” Some people said nothing at all. While some of the men and women appeared disheveled, others appeared no different from those I passed every day.
After the first wave settled into benches exactly the same as the ones I lunched at every day, I looked around to notice the homeless men and women chatting and eating. If it weren’t for the faded, dingy attire and unkempt facial hair, I never would have guessed the diners were returning to the street after their meal.
When I looked closer, I could see the days, months, and years of the street layered on each individual. Further revealed examination the residue of pavement, slush, ignorance, and disregard caked on each face, establishing a hierarchy. Some of the younger members showed signs of outranking their elders. A few in the ranks were not that much older than me.
I never noticed how many homeless people there really were as I viewed the stuffed cafeteria. I imagined each person departing from the soup kitchen and dissolving into the cement underpasses, brick buildings, and vapor rising from sewer grates. Those before me were magicians who didn’t need tricks. Somehow, they possessed real magic, and didn’t need an assistant to make themselves disappear.
“Huh hmm,” a throat cleared in front of my vat of applesauce, instantly returning me to my duties. The man could have been Santa Clause in another lifetime, if I still believed in him. His smile was warm, kind, normal. Although his beard was matted and everything about him seemed a shade of gray, he radiated a glow I couldn’t quite grasp.
“How are you today, young lady?” he asked.
“I’m good. How are you?” I asked before thinking it a stupid question. Duh! He’s homeless. It’s probably never a good day.
“Oh, it’s a beautiful day,” his cheerful response was reassuring and helped erase the red painting my cheeks. “Some of that delicious applesauce would make it even better.”
I couldn’t help but smile in his presence as I sloshed a heaping spoon onto his plastic tray.
His pupils dilated at the sight of the applesauce on his plate. He looked up at me, “How ’bout one more scoop?”
I knew what I was told. I knew how much time was left. I knew I was running low on applesauce. “I, uh, I don’t know if I can…” I stammered.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he continued to smile as he gently filled in my stammering. “I understand how it goes… Thank you.” He turned toward the tables, paused, and looked back into my face with understanding and sincerity. His eyes were blue. “You have a Happy Thanksgiving, young lady.”
“You too,” I spoke to his eyes and smiled with the corners of my mouth.
Something wasn’t right. I felt this knowledge slowly swirling inside of me as the line swelled again, but I continued to mechanically fill plastic slots with yellow mush.
There was still an hour left and my bin was nearly depleted. I eyed the amount of remaining applesauce and the bodies entering and winding their way toward me as a short, smiling volunteer headed over. In her arms, she cradled two enormous jugs of applesauce. She smiled as she dumped the contents into my bin, took the containers back to the kitchen, and returned with two more. Does she know I screwed up? I wondered as she continued to smile.
Desperately, I turned toward the dining area to find the man who just wanted one more scoop of applesauce. Once, twice, three-fourfivesix times, I surveyed the crowd. He must have already left, I thought as I felt shame filling my insides where turkey and stuffing should have been.
At that moment, I knew I failed. Why would anyone allow me to serve something as important as the turkey when I couldn’t even get the applesauce right. Why did I care about the rules? Who would have noticed? Why hadn’t I just asked if it was okay?
In only a few hours, I learned about the chasm existing between right and wrong that is often missed when glancing from peak to peak. For less than a blink, I understood the infinite shades of gray and marveled at the possibilities. Then I plucked my shade of shame as though a Crayola from the huge box. It was somehow gray and the pale yellow of applesauce at the same time.
Applesauce was my albatross.
I never told my father how I failed him that Thanksgiving. I never will have the chance either. Last Thanksgiving he called to let us know his cancer was enforcing a six-month term limit. It lied. Three days later he fell asleep for the last time.
Now I know the value of moments and mistakes and memories. When it comes to preparing a Thanksgiving meal, I’ve learned each and every dish is important, valuable, memorable.
And I never skimp on the applesauce.
If you have been lucky enough to enjoy the warmth of your home, family, and friends each Thanksgiving, one way to say thank you for your good fortune and fond memories is to share it with someone else.
Soup Kitchen Resources:
dosomething.org links to their own database of soup kitchens, and provides information on what to know and expect from volunteering.
Search for soup kitchens by state from 4homeless, gathered and posted by Tedrico, who’s found warmth in 11 different shelters.
More on Y! CN:
Poetry: Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair
Memoir: Poetry Appreciation 101
Short Story: A Simple Misunderstanding