On the drive home

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THE day after confuses a little. What is only Friday feels like Saturday or an uneventful Sunday when the paper doesn't arrive and we have made three trips to the porch for firewood. So we nap and are hungrier than it seems we would be after a feast day and late-night turkey sandwiches with cranberries. We move slowly on the outskirts of our routines. Someone has spread out the pieces to a puzzle of Shakespeare's birthplace and we have smoothed the borders into place in no time -- blue sky, green tree sides, dirt path, and flower garden base -- feeling along the corners of our minds: Do we fit things into place by color or shape? It is a competition into which we draw our quiet rivals by tapping on two pieces of our little achievement and asking aloud, Does this one work? Another's fingers race. Does t his section belong here? We finish off a bowl of popcorn and abandon the difficult sections for another round of chocolates and cheese.

There is not much eating these days that we take for granted. We are almost perpetually reminded of those who have been denied sustenance. By no virtue of our own we savor mouthfuls taken on silver spoons, the advantaged, the pleasantly full, who have bowed our heads and folded our hands in our laps before the steaming platters were passed.

Yesterday someone asked, Did we each have something specific for which we were thankful? The nervous anticipation of taking a turn with such an important question, let one of us blurt out food and family, which set the tone for the truncate answers to follow. Next to me, a father said something about his first son and ruffled the blond hair of the boy who sat elevated on telephone books beside him. The grandpa cleared his throat and through habit took on the high-pit ched intonation of a child's voice he uses to express affection. ``I am thankful for my beloved.'' He smiled across the table freely as though someone else had said this for him, as though only the innocent are allowed to say such things. For the rest of the meal we wished we had thought to say . . . because tomorrow we will all ride away in our separate cars and planes with our weekend bags packed full of boots and scarves we didn't use. It was too cold to play outside, the blizzard almost snowed us in wit h its accumulation.

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The children say goodbye to the birds -- a blue-jay family that fought the entire holiday with a cardinal family for a few extra seeds from the feeder -- and thank-you to Grandma, whose cheeks and neck they seem to find a way to bury their own smoothness into in a way that guarantees tears all around. We breathe out silent clouds around each other's faces.

Along the highway once we are beyond city traffic, an undisturbed landscape lies flocked with crystal, snow making its fields holy again. From a fenced woods, a line of black and white cows follows their hunger toward the barn, that warm place behind the quiet hump of blank hill the herd will write across.

We decide too late to photograph their saddles of snow. They are a mile back so we settle for a few shots of feathery trees, each with limbs full to drooping, and the unreal aspect of having been painted with the wide sweeping strokes of a master colorist. In the white is every hue, as we have been told, even occasionally the fluorescent orange of hunters.

For a few miles, ours has seemed the only car without a deer tied to the roof. We follow a station wagon with four roped sloppily into place, for two men who look neither pleased with themselves nor ashamed, only a little overweight maybe, and unshaven, and who we figure, by the way the driver taps the steering wheel, are listening to the same fiddle music on the radio that we are.

Garrison Keillor introduces a member of the Cottonwood Lutheran congregation, who reads in her lovely quivering voice Psalm 103, ``Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities; he redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and lovingkindness . . . ''

Around the table we could have said thank-you for any one of those things. Compassion, pardon, live deer, quarreling birds, the elements. It's not that we forgot, but that at the moment we were asked, on the spot, our heads became like those glass paperweights that, when you shake them, send up a flurry of artificial snow around the steeple of the little village church enclosed within. It's that all our thankfulness and all the things we were thankful for began to float around in our mind's mid ai r, suspended, and, before they had settled into place, it was our turn to speak. Something silly came out of our mouths that after it was said sounded as inadequate as marbles.

Later tonight, in Chicago, the Royal Canadian Shakespeare Company will perform ``King Lear,'' and if we can drive out of this storm we intend to make it to an 8 o'clock curtain. As we read aloud to each other with the car light on, the perfectly wrought words of Shakespeare's characters move us: the precise diction of Edmund challenging fate, trying to break out of his givens, the poignancy of a great king fallen into his dotage, who only with his best-loved daughter dead in his arms can express his tru e feeling for her. Telling too late is one of the crucial elements of many tragedies. If only the message could have gotten there earlier, who might not have been lost to us forever?

Maybe if we started now, on the drive home, and worked through the next weeks fitting all the straight-edged pieces of our appreciation into place, letting our gratitude settle over the breaks and cracks, by next year, when we're sitting all together once again, the picture of our thanks could be complete.

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