Thanksgiving starts off with a bang, but as the smoke began to clear I quickly started thinking that it had blown up the entire house. Roof, walls and charred clothes lay scattered everywhere around the block. So goes my imagination.
But then the shock of that hellish drive into and back from wondrous and mighty Chicago began to subside as the better van that my wife let me borrow steered us all safely off of the freeway, and then it eased us gently through the last toll booth that insisted (under penalty of something most horrific for failure to do so) we feed a yellow cage thirty cents before we could proceed to the Cracker Barrel that sat within view of the automatic tax device.
I never felt better for as far back as I can remember as I did crawling out from behind the steering wheel that cold and snowy night. Tired, hungry and relieved from duty at last, I followed behind our bundled passengers after I turned to press the button on my key chain, insuring the “thump!” of locks on the van set. Next I caught a ghost of an image of Joel dashing ahead, and confidently assumed Alma and Justin were with him somewhere, but the thick slush under my feet hid little treacherous pools of frigid water, so my steps that followed the group were each measured and taken with care. No sense in ruining a bad trip with cold wet feet while dining inside, even if there was a roaring fireplace waiting there.
As soon as I hop-skipped and jumped to the dry sidewalk leading to the double-hung doors of America’s finest kitchen (and where have I heard that complimentary phrase before?), I looked up to see Alma walking ahead of me and to my left. Beyond her I saw the still-familiar sight of my tall son Joel. My realization of both feet remaining warm inside my damp shoes as I hurried along took center stage at the moment, so I smiled automatically back at Alma as she put one arm around my waist.
For the last four hours, seat belts had restrained any show of affection among driver and passengers, so I let her support my final steps to the doors without any complaint. Then a kind old fellow stepped outside and held the first one open for us. She and I sailed right past this waiting gentleman, but I did think to turn my head to thank him. Things are looking brighter, I decided. It is so nice when folk are civil.
Then as I stopped to wipe my shoes on the floor mat in the foyer, the next door swung open, and it stayed that way. When I spied a younger man holding it steady for my little old sister and me, my heart took a huge turn for the better of humanity. But, I thought, it must be the holidays taking effect.
So I was forced to emit another “Thanks” over my right shoulder as well.
Now for those of you that have never had a Cracker Barrel experience, I should send you right off to read a properly-written account that will make your mouth water and cause you to start craving some of their food. But this narrative is almost done, so hold on; I can tell I am about to lose your interest of my warm shoes, and I can’t say I blame you.
Just let me move past the racks of this-is-how-they-get-you, and move right on inside to a table for four near that warmer stone fireplace. That’s where I want to be.
Joel has already went and claimed a seat facing away from the fireplace, and so after draping his large black trench coat neatly over the back of a chair, he sat down and put his elbows up on the table, just like dad does. I tried to avoid stepping on the excess of coat as I squeezed in the chair beside him, and succeeded. Next I scooted forward, and then I put my elbows on the table too.
And then I looked across the table and saw the polite and smiling young man who had stood and held the last door for us just minutes ago, and I sort of gasped in surprise at the sight of him sitting there smiling at me. What in the world is he doing sitting down with us? I felt my brain lurch and sputter, trying to keep up.
Then I realized it was Justin, the sixteen-year-old grand nephew that made his first trip from East Texas to Chicago by Greyhound bus, and then from Chicago to Elgin by van, and from the dark back seat of the van to a waiting table inside a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Traffic was murder, and I had never gotten a good look at the boy until now.
(Now, what is this that we have hiding beneath the tin-foil lid in the first bowl? Why, my goodness! It’s a little bit of an Alma story…please, keep your seat while I dish it out for you)
Years ago I went with her family of a husband and three children to spend a weekend at the beach near Galveston Island. That’s in the state of Texas, down on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s nice there and we all had a good time. But at one point she had taken her camera and went off by herself to find some interesting scenes to shoot when she came across a crusty old sea captain of an old fishing boat. She caught him busy coiling a line on the dock as she walked up, so brazen as could be, she pointed to his craft and piped up,
“That is such a beautiful old boat you have. I hope you don’t mind if I take some pictures of it.”
He barely glanced at the short woman holding the large camera and wearing her big friendly smile, but he never said a word. Taking that as permission granted, she began walking about the dock, clicking pictures. Then her enthusiasm got the better of her.
“Would it be alright if I went aboard for some close-up shots?”
The old salt glared at her for a moment, and then he spat.
“Lady, you need to go down to the Virgin Islands and get ya’self recycled.”
With that, he went back to methodically coiling rope, and Alma crept away in near-tears, wondering what in the world had she done to offend that fine old man.
(You still look under-nourished. Now it is not fattening, whatever this might be in the little Tupperware bowl, but it sure does taste that way, as I recall…here, go ahead. Have some)
Alma sure knows how to cook like my momma did, and one of her special treats is hot rolls. That name has always been a bit deceiving to me, for they resemble biscuits, and not rolls.
They have heft, these hot rolls, and far beyond that of a wimpy roll or even a well-made biscuit. And they have a taste that out-weighs their tantalizing smell. Made by hand, and more or less in the same manner as biscuits, they contain a generous amount of yeast. To breathe in the air while hot rolls bake is absolute torture to a hungry man.
Years ago she worked behind the service desk at a large department store in Arlington, Texas. During one holiday season, and after making a double-batch of these hot rolls at home, she took a large bowl, lined it with a clean towel, filled it up with hot rolls, and then drove to her work place to spread some cheer. As she passed the bowl around to her fellow employees, a much older gentleman about her same height walked by, so she stopped him.
“Would you care for a hot roll, Mr. Jenkins?”
Without slowing his shuffling gait, he waved her off.
“No thanks, dearie. I am way too old for that nonsense.”
(I see another small bowl toward the back, but you look satisfied for now. I’ll clean up here…why don’t you go lie down and take a nap, if you want)