Memphis, TN – November 22, 2012
People might wonder if it feels odd to spend Thanksgiving with a family of strangers and their friends who are strangers in city that is a stranger. They might wonder and ask me and this is what I’d tell them.
I’d tell them that two months ago I sat on the side of the Mississippi River in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. This was before barges and locks, before Minneapolis and St. Louis, before I almost froze in winter. I pressed a cellphone to my ear and tried to hear Michael Feldman’s voice on the other end.
The next day I got an email from a stranger in Memphis, Tennessee.
“We heard you on the radio,” it read. “If you need a warm shower or a place to stay or a good meal, let us know.”
Two months later, an hour after I got to Memphis, Marjorie, Frank, and their son Joseph took me to eat BBQ at one of their favorite places.
“Memphis doesn’t play when it comes to the pig,” Marjorie told me a week earlier.
She sent it in an email and I read it from a sandbar after eating overcooked macaroni and cheese and a can of tuna fish. She was right then and she was right at the counter of Central BBQ when she told me to get a full slab of ribs, half-wet, half-dry, because they may be the best in the city.
Yes, Memphis does not play when it comes to the pig.
I met their neighbor Bernard when he came over to assess how many people would be at Thanksgiving dinner. He needed to know how many sausages stuffed with hard-boiled eggs they should make. Marjorie did the math and came up with 15 while I wondered what possessed someone to stuff an egg inside of a sausage.
“Don’t worry,” Bernard said like a man who knew a great secret, “they’re good.”
I peeked into a pot of melting sugar as Marjorie stirred carefully, waiting for it to turn copper so she could pour it over a caramel-pear upside down cake. There wasn’t enough caramel for every slice of pear, so she added another cup of sugar to the pot.
“I guess we’ll just have to make more,” she said with a wink.
I nodded. It seemed that Memphis doesn’t play when it comes to desert either.
A handful of hard-boiled eggs that needed peeling gave me some way to help out. I cracked shells and sent them spinning down the garbage disposal. I wanted to make sure Marjorie could focus as much as she needed to on the two Pecan pies baking away.
Marjorie looked at me like I was crazy when I asked her if it would be ok for me to stay out late dancing.
“Dance as long as you want,” she said. “We’re giving you a key so you can come back whenever.”
I came back at 3 am and tiptoed to my room, feeling a bit like a truant teenager, but sure that it could have been hours later and no one would have cared.
Marjorie slid a thick slice of breakfast casserole into the oven as soon as I woke up and apologized for not having a microwave. I laughed and told her that it was no problem and I’d never had a microwave growing up.
“Oh you have to tell Joseph!” she said. “He’ll love to know he isn’t the only one.”
I told him later and we both commiserated on the difficulties of growing up without microwave popcorn.
Frank grabbed me to help him move the kayak to the backyard. It would have been fine on the side of the house next to their boat, but he didn’t want to take any chances, not with the Looksha, even in Midtown, Memphis, where the houses are old and grand and have small brass holes in the floor for bells that would ring the servants.
Marjorie and I ended up at a wine store with a Sputnik-like ball of spinning neon lights for a sign. It’s her favorite place because the clerks don’t look down their noses at you for not knowing what year California Cabernet’s were especially rich and bold with woody highlights and a full bouquet.
“And they let me bring Nerf,” she added, referring to her round pug that loves her almost as much as he loves food, which is saying a lot.
The clerk rang up the bottles and asked if we were making anything special for Thanksgiving.
“Not too much,” Marjorie lied. “But I have to have my Brussels sprouts.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before,” the clerk said.
Marjorie shot him her sly smile.
“Put enough butter and cheese on anything and it tastes good,” she said.
Somewhere on our run of last-minute errands, Marjorie apologized for wearing sunglasses inside.
“They’re prescription,” she said, “and I forgot my glasses.”
She slid them on and walked inside.
I usually think people look ridiculous, but Marjorie pulls it off with ease. I don’t know where she heard me on the radio and thought to invite me to her house, but I’m going to believe it was wearing those sunglasses and her quick smile.
Frank and I stopped in an empty Home Depot parking lot on Thanksgiving morning to exchange a propane tank because you must have gas if you want to fry two turkeys. The machine screamed out instructions loud enough to hear from across the street, but refused to read any of our credit cards.
We tried again and got nothing.
“This is how bad holiday movies start,” I said as the machine yelled at us again and again.
We piled back into the car and drove, Frank thinking and me on my phone, the two of us searching the streets of Memphis for a can of propane. We ended up at a gas station where a cheerful woman traded us a full tank for an empty one and I thought of how delicious those two fried turkeys would be.
“They got you working Thanksgiving?” Frank asked her as she unlocked the tank for us.
“Yea, but I’m getting off early,” she said with a huge smile.
Marjorie whispered to me that she thought her cornbread stuffing was “just a bit too dry” and I laughed and knew she was the only person who would ever notice.
Frank cut the two turkeys onto a giant platter. The kitchen smelled like Thanksgiving. Bernard arrived with his wife Jennifer, their kids Barent and Astrid, and a platter of eggs stuffed in sausage. The house began to fill with people and food. Sweet potato casserole, papaya-pomegranate salad, bread rolls, cranberry dressing, and cornbread-walnut-bacon stuffing, and onion pie joined the eggs stuffed in sausage, the pecan pies, the caramel pear upside down cake, the deviled eggs, the two fried turkeys and, of course, the Brussels sprouts with plenty of butter and cheese. There was even a platter of chocolate-covered bacon.
We stood around the dining room table and Marjorie gave thanks. A few words into it, she looked around at all the smiling faces, all the friends and family gathered together, and began to cry as she spoke, her words breaking because she knows what we all know deep down but try not to think about, that life is short, you have to seize it, and moments like these are wonderful.
It was the best grace I’ve ever heard.
Yes, people might wonder if it feels odd to spend Thanksgiving with a family of strangers and their friends who are strangers in city that is a stranger. They might wonder and ask me what it was like and I’d tell them that I don’t know, I’ve never done it.
Here’s what it was like from the other side: http://jennyslark.com/2012/11/25/people-are-good/