Thanksgiving is probably the first holiday for many college freshmen when they realize how far from home they are.
It was for me.
The buzz and blur of the first weeks of school has died down, and the real work of learning has begun in earnest. As the holiday weekend approaches, I realize that I am not one of the lucky rich kids who will fly 3,000 miles home for turkey and stuffing. I am also too shy and awkward to make friends, to be invited to someone else’s home for dinner.
A bleak lonely weekend looms ahead of me. The dining hall will be closed, and I wonder if my Thanksgiving dinner will be a pot of rice made in the tiny two-cup rice cooker my mother sent me off to college with. (Yes, the rice cooker is de rigueur for any kid from Hawaii going off to college to the Mainland.)
At the last minute, a dorm mate invites me home with her. Okay, it’s not really to her home. It’s more like a visit to her aunt.
I accept, and put the rice cooker back on the shelf.
One small detail: her aunt is a Catholic nun. In Las Vegas.
This beats a pot of rice any day.
I’ve never met a nun before. I’ve never been to a convent before. And I never imagined there would be a convent with nuns IN LAS VEGAS.
Wednesday after classes, Cheryl and I pile into her 1970-something Chevy or Pontiac or whatever boat of a car it is. Full tank of gas, cassette tapes at the ready, and a stockpile of snacks and we’re off, paddling down the desert highway.
Saguaro cacti stand honor guard along the road, creosote bushes slink lazily along the dunes. The road twists and turns, climbs and descends through bleakly beautiful country. The serenity of the emptiness is captivating and hypnotizing.
I count down the miles gleefully. For someone who grew up on an island, a journey longer than two hours is something to celebrate, indeed. We chase the sun as it sets behind the hills, and the shadows of the cacti grow longer. It’s like a ride into infinity.
Everything looks like a movie set. The clouds and mountains are making some serious drama in the waning light. All that’s missing is a lone cowboy’s silhouette on the horizon.
It’s dark when we reach Las Vegas. It’s cold, too, much colder than I expected. I sink deeper into my cotton sweatshirt, not having yet learned how to dress for winters on the Mainland. I haven’t learned yet the value of wool.
As we pull into the convent’s parking lot, utilitarian electric lights greet us. I am expecting, what? A cathedral? Monks in woolen cowls? Midnight chanting? Notre Dame?
None of that meets me. The convent looks like a dorm, serviceable and simple. There are no stained windows, no arching candelabra and no marble statues of saints to be seen. It is all wood, concrete, clean and tidy.
I think there are about twenty nuns there. They aren’t wearing wimples or long black garb. I am expecting The Flying Nun. I get a roomful of benevolent aunts in gabardine pants with elastic waistbands.
They show me to my room, a sparse neat affair with one twin bed. I fall asleep, breathing in the crisp dry air of the high desert. The lights and temptations of Las Vegas are a good twenty miles or so away, and so I sleep the sleep of the innocent.
The next day is Thanksgiving. As we sit in the refectory, the kind nuns carve the turkey and pass around the sides. Plus side, there’s wine. (I always thought the Catholics were cool because they smoke and drank, not like the strict Protestants I went to church with.) They laugh and chatter; they are nothing at all like the stern humorless nuns I grew up seeing in movies or reading about in books. They not even carrying around wooden rulers.
As we sit, the nuns regale me with stories of how they play the nickel slots, and more. They think if they win, God has blessed them. They start to lose their halos in my eyes, and become human. They are warm and full of life. I lose my self-consciousness as we eat and drink on this day of thanks.
The next day, Cheryl takes me to Zion National Park. It has snowed recently, and the red rocks are practically screaming crimson next to the pure quiet white. Green pine trees and agave bow gently under the weight of their frosting. The cacti stand by aloofly, all hands off in attitude.
It looks magical. Nature is the best conjurer.
As we head back to Phoenix and the reality of life in a college town, I think about Zion, the snow, the aunts and this Thanksgiving.
It is the first in a long line of Thanksgivings away from family. And yet, since then, each one has been special. I have found a way to make it so. I have served turkey dinner at 35,000 feet to guests travelling. I’ve spent way too many of them in the bowels of kitchens, cooking for unseen faces. Sometimes it has meant a big dinner with family, other times it’s been making family out of the small army of friends around me.
Thirty three Thanksgivings have gone by since I’ve left Hilo. Some have been better than others. Each one has been a reason to be thankful.
As Number Thirty Four approaches, I again count my blessings. Each Thanksgiving has become part of my memories, like a colored piece of glass in a stained glass window. Each one has a story. Some I have forgotten, others catch the light and shine brightly despite the years. All have a reason to be there, and to make up the tapestry of my memories.
Maybe you will be lucky and have the chance to celebrate with nuns in a convent outside Las Vegas one day. Or you might be in some far-flung place where no one knows what pumpkin pie is. You could be at home, watching the parades and games on the television. You might be alone in a dorm, with a pot of rice in hand.
It doesn’t matter. There is so much for which to be thankful. Always.
Wherever you are, I wish you a most thankful Thanksgiving.