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A KENTUCKY THANKSGIVING

November 19, 2017

Thanksgiving is the least commercialized of all of our holiday celebrations.  The fourth Thursday of November, for most of us, is a day to pause before the Friday identified as the busiest shopping day of the year.  The brief respite is a time for reflection, for gratitude, even for nostalgia.  One of my most important Thanksgiving memories is a Kentucky Thanksgiving with Bobby.

Bobby was fourteen years old, large for his age, but shy and withdrawn.  His severe acne, unkempt hair, broken front tooth, smudged glasses, and distant stare were external evidence of a troubled mind and a broken heart.

Bobby was a patient in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital, a mental hospital in La Grange, Kentucky, where I worked as a chaplain.  Though Bobby was diagnosed as chronically depressed and borderline schizophrenic, he had moments when his intellectual functioning exceeded that of the hospital staff.  Bobby was one of the patients who prompted the comment, “The main difference between the staff and the patients in this hospital is that the patients get better.”

As Thanksgiving approached during those golden autumn days in Kentucky, the staff in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital was delighted to learn that almost all of the teenage patients would be given a three-day home visit for the holiday, all, that is, except Bobby.  The treatment team determined that Bobby was not ready to function for three days away from the hospital.  His home situation had been assessed as being so dysfunctional that he could be allowed no more than a one-day visit accompanied by a hospital staff member.  If Bobby went home for Thanksgiving Day, he would have to return to the hospital that same night.

Other staff members had looked forward to having Thanksgiving Day away from the hospital.  I volunteered to accompany Bobby to his home in the Kentucky mountains for the day.  The social worker contacted his mother and his grandparents to arrange the visit.  I would drive him to his mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and bring him back to the hospital before nightfall.  Clare and I planned to have our family Thanksgiving meal after I returned.

Thanksgiving Day dawned clear and cold.  I met Bobby at the adolescent unit early.  I wondered what this visit to his home would mean to him.  Those dark vacant eyes, practically concealed behind the dirty glasses, revealed no excitement.  The sunny Thanksgiving morning and the beautiful Kentucky countryside made our three-hour drive through the Bluegrass Region into the mountains a scenic trip.

Though I attempted several times to strike up a conversation about Bobby’s family and their usual Thanksgiving celebration, Bobby responded with silence.  His only conversation was to give a running commentary on the make and model of every automobile on the highway.  He knew details about many of cars, such as engine size and horsepower.  The only significant exchange between us was his assertion that I had not made a wise selection when I had purchased my used car.  I should have chosen a Ford Mustang, he advised.

When we arrived in the coal mining mountain town, Bobby directed me to his mother’s house.  A note of anticipation arose in his voice as we approached the modest home.  The frame house suffered from neglect.  Shingles were missing from the roof, and paint was peeling from the wooden siding.  The screen door was completely off the hinges.  Bobby said, “Her truck is gone.  She’s not here.”  His face showed no emotion; his voice disclosed disappointment.  Bobby did not knock on the door.  He just opened the unlocked door to search the house.  No one was home.

“Could she be at your grandparents’ house?” I asked.

“We can see,” replied Bobby.

We drove for several miles on a winding back road to his grandparent’s home.  The log house perched on a mountainside showed no sign of life. “Maybe we missed them,” suggested Bobby.  We took the twisted trip back into town to his mother’s home.  No one was there.  I offered to buy Thanksgiving dinner for the two of us, not knowing where I could find a restaurant, much less a restaurant open on the holiday.

Bobby refused my offer. “I’ll fix something,” he said.

Inside the small kitchen, I watched as my fourteen-year-old host opened the refrigerator.   It was well stocked with beer, but food was sparse.  Bobby took bologna and a bowl of cold grits from the shelf.  In a large iron skillet, he fried thick slices of bologna.  In the remaining grease, he browned slices of cold grits.  I fixed two glasses of water.  We sat in ladder-back chairs at an old card table.  I quoted Psalm 100 and offered a blessing.  Bobby and I ate together and cleaned up the dishes together. When it was time to leave, we closed the door, leaving it unlocked as we had found it.

The three-hour drive back to the institution seemed interminable.  Our only conversation was about automobiles.  At one point, I tried to allow Bobby to speak about his hurt.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to be with your family.”

Bobby replied stoically, “It’s OK.”  Then he commented on a passing Pontiac.

Just before sunset, Bobby and I climbed the back stairs to the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital.  A childcare worker unlocked the door to allow for our entry.  As I prepared to leave, Bobby turned toward me, threw his arms around my neck, and said, “This is the best Thanksgiving I have ever had!”

On Thanksgiving Day, our family repeats together the words of the Bible, “Enter into his gates with Thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name” (Psalm 100: 4).

When I hear that scripture, I remember that Thanksgiving meal of fried bologna and cold grits, shared at a card table, in a rundown house in the mountains of Kentucky.  I am reminded that Thanksgiving is not what is on our table.

Thanksgiving is what is in our hearts.

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