The Best Thanksgiving Ever
By Rev. Dan White
The giant Corning Plant, famous for Corelle tableware and Pyrex cookware in Rochester, New York, went through another round of layoffs on August 3rd. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, Corning was reeling from the economic chaos along with other industries throughout the United States.
Almost 13 million Americans have lost their jobs. Roy Donovan was one of 115 laid off by Corning that day with more layoffs to follow. Roy fumed on the 45 mile commute home to Nunda, New York, on Interstate 390. A sense of dread swept over the young father. How would he face his wife and his two children?
Roy and his wife Charlotte were in their early thirties. Their son, Ryan, had just turned five, and their daughter, Brianna, was a two year old toddler into everything.
They lived from week to week on his $48,000 annual salary. They had practically no savings and now, their health insurance benefits were gone too.
Roy’s anger overflowed when he walked into his house. For no reason, he yelled at his kids for wanting his attention. Then, he slapped his wife when she defended them.
Their rocky marriage had been marred by Roy’s temper and abuse. Charlotte had had about enough and thought of leaving him many times. But after each episode, Roy apologized and was kind. If only that nice side was permanent, Charlotte mused to herself.
Roy went down and signed up for unemployment benefits. The $350 per week unemployment check was a far cry from the $923 per week he was drawing from Corning.
It didn’t take long for the Donovan’s to fall behind on their bills. In the meantime, Roy searched for work. He applied again and again and couldn’t even get an interview. Nobody was hiring.
By October, they were two months behind on their mortgage payments of $1247 per month. A letter threatening foreclosure added to the family’s tension. They were one month behind on their car payment of $623. They scraped enough together to pay the auto insurance.
The baby had infected lymph nodes and needed to see a doctor that they couldn’t afford.
Charlotte was relieved when Roy left the house from time to time to drive to Rochester to hunt for work. At least there was peace in the house.
By the end of October, the nights were reaching into below freezing temperatures in the New York upstate. They were running low on fuel oil and needed to call the oil company to refill their 330 gallon tank. at $2.63 per gallon. Charlotte worried how they would come up with the almost $900 to heat their home. She thought of Jesus telling Peter to look in the fish’s mouth where he found a coin to pay the Temple tax. “Ha, she nervously laughed, “Maybe I could go fishing for a miracle.”
Roy’s widowed mother couldn’t help them. She was barely surviving herself and had moved in with his sister up in Buffalo. Charlotte’s parents sent them $200 that they didn’t have to spare. They were living on Social Security and a small retirement check.
Charlotte was in a desperate way. The stress on Roy made him more and more ornery and unpredictable. When she went out to buy groceries one Saturday, she had to use heavy make-up to cover the bruise on the side of her face where Roy hit her and shoved her to the floor.
In a letter to her parents who had retired to Florida several years ago, she wrote, “Thank you for helping us out. I know it was a sacrifice. I was able to keep our electricity on for another month. I know I am supposed to have faith in God but how? I know God instructs us not to worry, but it’s hard to cast my cares on the Lord. Maybe this will lead my husband to God. I don't know. I have never seen things so bad. I don’t know why all of this is happening. Only God knows why. If something doesn’t break for us soon, I think I will go crazy. I feel trapped in all of this. I feel like there’s a better way out there somewhere, but the kids wouldn’t understand if I left. I just pray that the Lord will part the Red Sea like He did for the Israelites and make a way. I pray that the Lord will give me guidance along the right path to go, and open my eyes if it’s meant for me to leave this situation. I know the battle isn't mine. It’s the Lord’s. He is the only one that sees the truth. and knows my situation more than anyone. I’m not asking for charity just prayer and the problem to be solved in the right way. I don't know what to do. Thanks again. Love you both, Charlotte. ”
Charlotte had been devoted to church. She had fond memories of Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, youth fellowships, and worshipping with her parents at Trinity Church in the little town of Nunda with a population of just over 3,000. But, Roy was not a church going man and gave his wife a hard time about attending church. She was tired of fighting him about that issue and had pretty much given up church. She occasionally would go - especially to the beautiful Christmas Eve service and on Easter. Roy said that Sunday was his day off. He worked hard at Corning with a long, tiring commute each day. He didn’t appreciate his wife and children leaving him on Sunday morning on a day off.
Now, there was no work. Every day was a day off, and Roy still refused to go to church nor did he want Charlotte and the kids going either. “That church is full of hypocrites,” he would say. If God is good as you say, why don’t I have a job? I don’t even think there is a God!”
One Saturday evening in mid-October, Roy announced that he was going out with friends. When Charlotte awoke the next morning, Roy was still not home.
She got the kids up and dressed for church hoping Roy wouldn’t pop in and prohibit her from going. The Autumn chill in the air seemed to reinvigorate her. “No wonder the Seneca Indians loved this valley,” she thought.
The Genesee River ran through Nunda which means, "Where the valley meets the hills" in the Seneca language. The morning sun greeted a frosty morning. The paintbrush of God was brilliant in the red, brown, and gold leaves on the hardwood trees. It was said by settlers in the early 19th century, “In all the world there is not a place like unto it for human habitation."
Roy and Charlotte lived about five miles outside the town limits. She still experienced a thrill upon viewing the pastoral scenery of the beautiful Nunda Valley and the gentle, rolling hills rising up from the Genesee River.
She entered the town limits with it’s welcoming sign, "Welcome to Nunda, A Nice Place To Live." Beautiful Trinity Church with it’s stone siding and open timber beams over the sanctuary, was straight ahead to the left on Mill Street. Charlotte felt a wave of emotion come across her and fought back the tears as she thought of the happy times and closeness to God she had felt there.
She was a little nervous as she unpacked the kids and walked up to the red church door. There was the usual crowd of 45 to 50. She feared the common greetings. “Where have you been? We’ve missed you. Why don’t you come any more? She didn’t feel like giving some lame excuse or make up an answer.
Fortunately, no one asked her the typical questions for a parishioner who seldom attended any more. Instead, she was greeted with love, genuine love. It seemed they knew that’s what she needed most.
The church still had the traditional service unlike the new church that had come to town with it’s fancy LCD computer projector and Power Point slides that projected the contemporary praise and worship choruses on to a big screen.
She took comfort in the familiar hymns, felt the Lord’s presence in the prayer time, and smiled a bit as the choir sang a little off key. She handed Ryan one of two five dollar bills she had and instructed him to put it in the offering when the plate was passed. The pastor was certainly not a dynamic preacher, but the message that morning really ministered to her. It was as if God was speaking directly to her. His sermon text was from Psalm 91. "Because you love me," says the LORD, "I will rescue you; I will protect you, for you acknowledge my name. You will call upon me, and I will answer you; I will be with you in trouble, I will deliver you and honor you. With long life will I satisfy you and show you my salvation."
The good feelings from the worship service dissipated as she drove back home. She had not fixed dinner. A sense of anxiety came over her as she feared the confrontation she was sure to have with Roy for sneaking off to church.
The blow-up came. Charlotte went to bed early while Roy stayed up to watch the NFL Sunday night game. She thought of the worship service, the hymns, the sermon, and the love she received. She meditated upon the Psalm. “I will protect you. I will answer you. I will be with you in trouble” and drifted off to sleep
Thanksgiving was only a few days away. The Donavans had put their home on the market to avoid foreclosure like so many others had done. But, nothing was selling in the valley. More and more workers were being laid off by industries in Rochester where many in the Nunda Valley worked. They weren’t the only ones having hard times.
Roy’s unemployment benefits were almost played out. Savings were gone. Unpaid bills stacked up. Bill collectors constantly harassed them. The thermostat was turned down to 64 and they bundled up inside the house to stay warm. A lake effect winter storm was building to the west off Lake Erie and threatened to dump six or more inches of snow in the valley.
Early on the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving, Roy left for an interview for a loader on the third shift with Klein Steel Service in Rochester.
By mid-morning, heavy snow began to fall. The snow plows were out salting the roads and removing the snow from I-390, but they couldn’t keep up. Roy had neglected to put snow tires on his car thinking he had a little more time before the “big one” came.
Traffic was at a slow crawl fifteen miles from Rochester. He looked at the clock in the dashboard. There was no way he was going to make the interview on time. A nervous sweat broke out on his forehead. He cursed the snow and moved to the passing lane against his better judgment. The fast falling snow covered the road.
Roy accelerated. He had to make this appointment. The tires spun. He lost control and spun around veering into the emergency lane. When the car finally stopped, the front was pointing south instead of north toward Rochester.
He gathered his wits and backed this way and that way to straighten his car and head back north. “Whew,” he said to himself, “that was close.”
Charlotte looked out the window. She couldn’t even see the hills coming out of the valley because it was snowing so hard. Yes, they had had their hard times, but sometimes Roy could be pleasant. Besides, he was all she had. She worried about Roy driving in the snow. They had long since lost their cell phone service, and there was no way to check on him.
She wrapped her sweater tight around her and prayed. God knew where he was, and she prayed for God to protect him and give him the job.
By late afternoon, the snow finally let up. The sun peaked through. The valley was a winter wonderland of snow. Clean, pure, fresh. Night was fast descending.
The phone rang. Charlotte jumped up hoping that it was Roy, hoping that he hadn’t had an accident, hoping he had the job.
“This is Roy. I didn’t get the job. What are we going to do? How are going to make it?”
Stunned, Charlotte couldn’t answer.
“Hello. Charlotte, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“I feel like such a failure. I’ve never been in a situation I couldn’t control. Look, I’m spending the night in Rochester with an old buddy of mine. I don’t want to chance these roads, and I haven’t put my snow tires on. See you sometime tomorrow. Bye.”
There was something strange, pitiful in Roy’s voice.
“Mommy, mommy, was that daddy?” asked Ryan with little Brianna clinging to him.
“Yes, that was your father. He will be home tomorrow. Let’s get ready for bed.”
Charlotte was nervous about Roy coming home. Would it be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?
Around noon, she heard the car pull up. She expected his anger to be at full throttle, but he walked in dejected, depressed, and had little to say.
After a meager supper, Charlotte mustered the courage to ask Roy to go to the Thanksgiving service that night. She had long since quit asking him to go to church and expected a resounding “NO!”.
To her surprise, he agreed. After church, Betsy Van Deventer, a 77 year old widow, asked Roy and Charlotte if they had plans for Thanksgiving dinner. Her daughter and son-in-law were not going to be able to make the trip up from New York City because of the bad roads, and she was baking a big turkey with all of the trimmings.
Charlotte looked at Roy. He nodded in agreement. Their food pantry was bare and not much was left in the freezer.
As they gathered around the table, Betsy said, “I know it’s been tough for you. Me and Thomas had some hard times too. I miss him so much. I still sleep in his flannel shirt just so that I can be close to him. Sometimes, I think I hear him coming through the door. It’s been over a year now, and I can’t seem to get over his passing. So what if you lose everything as long as you have each other. You can have all of the gold and silver in the world, but if you don’t have love, you have nothing. Love each other. Love the Lord. Relationships are the most important thing in the world.”
With that, she offered her right hand to Roy and he reached for Charlotte’s hand. The children joined hands with them as she led the little circle in a prayer of thanksgiving.
“Heavenly Father, thank you for the joy of friends to share this dinner with. Thank you for your abundant provisions. And most of all, we thank you for our Lord Christ who became poor so that we might become rich in grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Amen.“
Roy tenderly squeezed his wife’s hand. A since of divine peace and calm filled his heart that would last forever. He had everything. It was the best Thanksgiving ever.
Rev. Dan White is a free-lance writer and founder and pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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