The young woman eased back in her high-back chair as she surveyed with satisfaction the scene in front of her. The Thanksgiving table had been thoroughly plundered by the members surrounding her grandfather’s table and the quantity of turkey, cornbread dressing and sweet potato casserole was significantly less than it had been at the beginning of the meal. The faces and voices were all familiar as were the frequent bouts of laughter that accompanied each retelling of those old familiar tales, many dating back to the years of World War II and the Great Depression. She had never tired of hearing them and had even found herself sharing many of them with her college acquaintances, but she had to admit that the richness of the tales seemed less appreciated within the circles of young people whose attention seemed to be dominated by the urgency of the insignificant.
It was good to be home.
Dessert, including pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies had just been completed and many of the family members were sitting comfortably sipping their coffees when the young woman’s father stood up and gently tapped his half empty sweet tea glass with his spoon.
“Alright, you crazy people,” he began. His greeting was met with the usual good natured family discussion about which one of them was actually the craziest.
“I hope that you all have enjoyed yourself as much as I have today,” his gaze suddenly shifted toward his brother-in-law.
“Stop making faces, George, or you’ll have to sit in the corner like you did last year.”
“Do I get to wear the cone hat, too?” George responded.
“Believe me, George, we wouldn’t have it any other way. You’re basically unrecognizable without your dunce cap.”
The table erupted in laughter.
“But, seriously I am thankful for you all and thankful for my father-in-law, otherwise lovingly known as ‘Papa,’for hosting this unruly bunch once again this year for Thanksgiving.”
The shifting of everyone’s focus to the older gentleman seated in his preferred seat in the middle of the table was accompanied by a round of applause. He nodded politely in response. As was his custom, he was clad in one of his newer pairs of bib overalls with a clean and pressed khaki-colored shirt underneath. For as long as she could remember, the young woman could never remember seeing her grandfather clothed in any other manner.
“So,” the young woman’s father continued. “We’ve come to the part of our meal where we traditionally take turns around the table and thank God for a specific blessing.”
His gaze suddenly shifted to his sister.
“Now, Susan, I know that I am by far the biggest blessing you have ever received but you really are going to have to control yourself. You took up way too much time last year and everyone needs to have a turn.”
The laughter returned.
“You do know I asked mom and dad to return you to the store after you were born, right?” Susan responded.
“Yes, well, moving right along…”
The young college student continued to snicker at the thought of her aunt asking her parents if they had kept the bill of sale so that her new little brother could be returned to the store from whence he came.
“I am very thankful that my daughter is home from college,” her father stated with pride as he returned to the more serious subject at hand.
The young woman smiled sheepishly.
Taking turns, each family member recalled a specific blessing for which they were especially thankful. Many were for the usual blessings such as family, health, and healing but each was nonetheless quite sincere and served as a reminder of just how truly blessed they had been.
The first person to give thanks after the young woman’s father was sitting to Papa’s right and so each person proceeded in order until Papa was the final person remaining. As his turn arrived, Papa’s head leaned forward slightly as if he was looking at something he was holding, although his hands were empty.
“Well, I’m thankful for a good pair of work boots and for trees.”
As he finished his simple statement, he lifted his eyes and connected with those of his daughter whose eyes had already begun to fill with tears. The rest of the table remained silent save for a few whispered ‘amens.’ Papa had always been a man of few words but this still struck the young woman as an odd response. The college student half expected a round of laughter to follow her grandfather’s statement but there was none, as if the others understood his sentiment exactly.
“And I can’t think of a better way to end,” the young woman’s father continued. “Now let’s help with cleanup before we plop down to watch the game.”
There soon followed the spirited sounds of clanging dishes, cups, and silverware as the entire family pitched in to clear the table. All items were then neatly arranged in stacks near the kitchen sink and dishwasher before the ladies and gentlemen retired to their traditional places; the living room for the former group and the den, where the television was located, for the latter. As the groups settled in, the young woman noticed Papa gaze about with an air of contentment, and then quietly slip out of the room to head down to his workshop. Not yet ready to retire to the living room, the college student decided to follow.
Papa had always been a quiet soul, but full of simple and yet profound wisdom. He had always enjoyed woodworking and the young woman had spent many hours with him in his workshop as a child. She had always been amazed at how his calloused hands could turn scraps of wood into elegant furniture and works of art. In many ways, the young woman felt as if she and Papa were kindred spirits. She, too, was not prone to speaking much or often and that characteristic many times left her feeling isolated in a world which praised the loud and the flamboyant. When the loneliness would inevitably strike, she would often think of Papa, hard at work in his shop, and the image would bring her a sense of tranquility that she felt few other times.
Her hand reached out and turned the handle to the workshop door and she stepped inside after easing the door open. She was immediately greeted with the familiar and sweet scent of sawdust and cedar shavings. Papa was inspecting some of his current projects on the far bench when he saw her come in.
“Well, hey there, Pumpkin,” he greeted her using the nickname he had given her years ago. “I’m not being antisocial, but I did need to break away for a few minutes.”
He looked at her over the top rim of his glasses.
“You understand all about that, don’t you?” he said with a grin.
She returned his question with a nod.
“Come over here and take a look at what I’m making,” Papa invited. “Now, mind you, don’t go telling everybody as some of these are going to be Christmas gifts.”
She promised that Papa’s secret was safe with her. As she stepped over to his work bench, she was greeted by the sight of multiple projects nearing completion. As Papa pointed them out one by one she saw a Lazy Susan for her mother, a wooden snowman family complete with hats and scarves for her aunt, and a finished heart carved from cedar. Gently, Papa picked up the cedar heart and handed it to his granddaughter.
“Now, this one is for you,” he began. “Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything because it’s not your Christmas present from me. I just thought you might sometimes need a little reminder when you’re away.”
“A reminder of what, Papa?”
“A reminder of what remains unseen.”
Her brow furrowed slightly with confusion.
“Does this have anything to do with the blessings you mentioned after our meal? You know, work boots and trees?”
“I have to admit that I really didn’t understand, although I think everyone else did.”
“Oh, that was just your Papa being silly.”
“You’re many things, Papa, but silly isn’t one of them.”
For a moment, Papa smiled in response and then, as his weight shifted from one foot to the other, his gaze fell to the floor as his memory travelled to a distant time and place.
“People used to ask me all the time when I was young as to why I was always wearing my work boots wherever I went. In fact, I’m not even sure that I noticed that I was doing it until it was brought to my attention. Everywhere I went, they went with me and it didn’t really matter what the occasion was. I would have even worn them to church had not my mother absolutely forbidden it.”
Papa smiled as he recalled the image of his mother wagging her finger at him.
“When I was a little older, maybe much older, I put some thought into it and finally understood what was happening. My early life definitely had some long and lonely stretches and in those days I would spend time in the outdoors to clear my head. You know, trying to figure out why I was different from everyone else. I spent some of the most beautiful times of my young life in the forests and fields of home doing some of my most favorite things. And, whenever I would look down to make sure of my footing, there were my boots. Of course I had more than one pair over time but that made no difference. I wore them everywhere because they brought a little bit of tranquility with them. Almost as if they scooped a little bit of heaven from the very fields themselves and brought it along to some very desolate places in my life. They always served as a reminder that things would get better. There would, Lord willing, be another Saturday morning in the forest, or another time to cut firewood with my father. And, if that peace never returned in this life, then surely it would in the one to come.”
Papa then smiled again.
“I remember a trip to New York City once when our family decided to go sightseeing. This was before you were born. Talk about a fish out of water. I suppose you can imagine what footwear I chose to take with me?”
The young woman smiled in response.
“I remember standing in the middle of Times Square, surrounded by lights and people and noises like I had never experienced before. I looked down at my feet standing on that surface of concrete, dirt, and old bubble gum and saw my old friends, complete with a patch of red clay clinging to the side of my right sole. I was a long way from home, but I had brought a little bit of home with me. After that, I didn’t feel nearly as nervous or out of place.”
He then placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Well, that’s my silly little story. But you’ll find your reminder too. Something in your life will remind you of the good times and blessings and whisper to you that they will come again. Even if it takes a lifetime. You may not know what that reminder is now, but you’ll know it when you find it.”
His calloused hands then opened her palm where she held the carved and finished cedar heart.
“As for trees,” he whispered. “They all have hearts, hidden deep within where most folks will never seen them.”
Papa motioned for her to observe the smooth carving closely.
“Just look at that wood grain. Do you know where I got this piece? It’s from the center of a cedar tree that I cut for a friend. Now, why in the world would God put something that pretty in the heart of a tree where no one can see it?”
The young woman looked up at Papa as she awaited his answer.
“The same reason that He buried such beauty deep inside your own heart. Somebody has to be intentionally looking for it to see it.”
She nodded her head in agreement.
“So,” Papa continued. “One day that certain man is going to cross your path. You make sure he sees the heart of the tree. If he can’t, he’s not worth your time.”
He then folded her hands around the elegant carving.
“So, boots and trees?” she asked with a smile.
“They can teach you more than you might imagine. And for that, I’m thankful.”
Papa then turned back to his work table.
“We’ll, I guess we’ve been antisocial long enough. Let’s head back up and see how the game is going.”
“Papa, it’s the Lions. There’s not much doubt which way that game is going.”
“True,” Papa replied as he put his arm around her shoulder and walked toward the door. “I’ve never even been to Detroit.”
“Well, if you go, wear your boots.”