The turkey is prepared, the casseroles are in the oven, and the pies are on the counter. Folks are gathered in the living room, and the noise accelerates as their hunger deepens.
The sounds of children screeching and adults laughing emanate through the house the same way the scent of roasted turkey wafts its way through rooms.
The sweet potato soufflé and I have a quiet moment as I watch the marshmallows transition into pale shades of gold. As I do, I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass.
I see a reflection that is a blend of my parents. My eyes are my father’s, his father’s, and my great-grandfather’s. These inherited eyes are captured in photos dating back over a century.
It is the year 2000, the first Thanksgiving without my father. I am not counting Thanksgiving 1999 because he still joined us at the table on that memorable day.
On November 22, 1999, Ray Caraway Walker left this earth. He passed peacefully, gratefully, and humbly into the arms of angels. He was 85, married to my mother for 60 years, and had survived the death of his son by 18 months.
We took my Dad home from Georgia to be laid to rest on a barren hillside in the mountains of Tennessee, where names etched in granite sprung from the ground of those he knew and loved, including his only son.
My father adored many things in life: Golf, hardwood trees, pecan pie, and my mother. Not necessarily in that order, except for maybe the golf. Mom was never too sure about that one.
His service was on November 24, the day before Thanksgiving. He had wanted it to be brief and by the gravesite only. However, a cold wind whirled in the mountains that day, so we held a little service in the chapel of the funeral home my cousin owned.
None of us were prepared for a formal funeral, so I quickly wrote a eulogy and told the Cate sisters to play the piano and sing. Mary and Elaine were the daughters of my parent’s best friends since childhood. Highly talented musicians who had no problem jumping to the task at hand.
“Anything specific you want us to play?” Elaine asked.
After a brief pause, I responded, “The Tennessee Waltz.”
The girls looked puzzled. Mom just gazed at me, and then a slight smile lit her grieving face.
“Well, Dad loved music. He loved to whistle a tune, usually the Tennessee Waltz. It was his favorite!” I stated.
The song was played sweetly on the piano. Afterward, Elaine touched the keyboard as Mary softly sang an old hymn, In the Garden.
My mother took my hand. It was my Dad’s mother’s favorite song. A tear would cascade down his cheek throughout his life when he heard that hymn. The Cate sisters chose it randomly, with no idea how special it had been for all of us.
I love how God often shows up to tell you that life is continuing and that you will see your loved ones again, possibly in a garden somewhere.
The following day was Thanksgiving. Our family had gathered to say goodbye to my father and would, once again, scatter to other parts of the country.
However, it was Thanksgiving. Why not gather for a meal before we say our goodbyes?
“Where?” was the one-word unified answer.
A chain of restaurants originated in Tennessee, perfectly named “The Cracker Barrel.” They promote down-home country cooking with old-time candies and hometown gifts. They might be open.
“Do they ever close?” one of the kids sarcastically asked.
As the group walked through the doors, eyes widened to take us all in.
A sweet lady with the same Tennessee twang I have escorted us to the most oversized round table Cracker Barrel owned. No turkey was on a platter as the centerpiece, but they served the bird with all the “fixings.”
We started telling stories about how Daddy would sneak into the kitchen and steal deviled eggs, so Mama wouldn’t spot him. Then, when he sat at the table and had more, he would wink at all of us when Mama wasn’t looking.
Stories continued about my humorous father and his good old horse sense. Accounts of family times shared and the losses experienced. Tales whirled around the table as the wind whirled around the mountain. Stories that warmed our spirits and dried our eyes.
In the Tennessee Cracker Barrel that day, I realized I was watching the ever-changing face of a family. As in all families, members come and go. Our mighty patriarch was gone.
“Can I interest you in some dessert?” the waitress interrupted my thoughts.
She continued, “We have pumpkin and apple pie with ice cream, but my favorite is the pecan pie!”
We all smiled, glancing at each other.
“Oh, I will definitely have the pecan pie!” we shouted simultaneously.
Laughter filled the table because we all knew that Daddy was sitting among us that day, enjoying one last piece of his favorite dessert before disappearing behind the pearly gates.
I took the sweet potato soufflé to the table where anxious faces were now gathered. Across from me sat one of my daughters. Her long blond hair framed her face as her eyes met mine.
The eyes were the same as those reflected in the oven door. Those that graced century-old photos and a father’s face.
As her eyes gazed into mine, I could swear I saw Dad sitting at a table in the garden, having a piece of pecan pie with his family while the Tennessee Waltz softly played in the background.
Thank you, God, for the eternal gift of family.
Lynn Walker Gendusa is a Georgia author and columnist. Her latest book is “Southern Comfort: Stories of Family, Friendship, Fiery Trials, and Faith.” She can be reached at www.lynngendusa.com. For more of her inspirational stories, click here.