Empty chairs, but full hearts

The enduring affection we have with our kids will fill any empty spaces around our Thanksgiving table.

As a 10-year-old, I couldn't know how much it meant to my parents. But now, with grown children of my own, I can empathize with how they must have felt when my sister Judy announced she would not be able to get home for Thanksgiving.

There were five "little women" in our family, and, until then, the seven of us had spent every holiday together. But Judy had transferred to a university in the Midwest. She had no car, and there wasn't enough money for a plane ticket back to New England for such a brief holiday.

The fact that there would be a little more elbow room around our round pine table - so that you could actually cut your meat without bumping the person next to you - was small consolation for all of us.

"I'll call you," Judy promised before she hung up the phone.

Sure enough, on the eve of Thanksgiving, just after Dad had come home from work, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. It was Judy, calling a day early. The news spread quickly through our little house. We congregated in the kitchen, and someone hooked the receiver up to the new speaker unit so we could all hear Judy's voice.

She sounded very cheerful - as if perhaps she was trying to make the best of the situation.

We exchanged news, then words of love. "We'll miss you tomorrow," Dad said, "but it won't be long before Christmas."

"Yeah, we'll see you soon," some of us joined in.

If Dad wondered why we smiled so broadly when we said that, he didn't have to wonder long.

As soon as the phone was hung up, laughter came bubbling down from an upstairs bedroom, where our second phone was installed. There was Judy, who had gotten an unexpected ride back to New England.

My own children have had to miss holidays with us several times. We filled their places at the table by inviting friends over, and we talked to them on the phone. But it wasn't quite the same, especially the first few times it happened.

One of our children will be away again this Thanksgiving. But, I realize now, I'm OK with that. Having them at my turkey-and-stuffing-laden dining room table is far less important to me now than something I'm genuinely grateful for - the close relationship we have with each of our grown kids.

They love to be with us and with each other. The recognition of this enduring affection will fill all the empty space around our table this Thanksgiving and sweeten the pumpkin pie. Not that I wouldn't be thrilled if our son called from a cellphone in an upstairs bedroom.

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