Thanksgiving always brings thoughts of my Uncle Rich. He had a way of delighting in small things, of finding joy in the ordinary, that I am glad to remember in the darkening days of late November.
Uncle Rich was my father's youngest brother. He was diagnosed with Down's syndrome. Although he was in his 30s at the time of this recollection, he was small, not much taller than my 11-year-old sister. My father had explained to his four children that Uncle Rich could talk, he just didn't choose to. But I wanted him to. Anyone who enjoyed Thanksgiving as much as Uncle Rich would surely have important things to tell me.
Each year, when he and my grandparents arrived at our house for Thanksgiving in their old black Ford, he would beam at us before he even got out of the car and began hugging everyone.
And each year, as the elaborate preparations for Thanksgiving began, I wondered once again if Uncle Rich would talk to me. I thought about him during the days of baking pies, making the special potato stuffing and the candied yams, and boiling cranberries with sugar.
The Thanksgiving that I was 9, I asked my mother about Uncle Rich when we went to pick up the turkey that, as always, was so enormous my father had to get up extra early to start roasting it. All the Brown cousins were coming, which meant 18 people. Then there were the foreign students whom my mother always invited at the last minute.
``Do you think Uncle Rich will talk this year?'' I asked as she slammed the back of the station wagon shut.
She was quiet as we climbed in the car, then she said, ``Maybe. You know he does talk to his teachers sometimes.'' Uncle Rich went to a special school during the school year and came home to my grandparents for holidays and summer vacations.
``He does?'' I asked.
``Oh yes. But I've never heard him talk. Perhaps he feels shy at Thanksgiving because there are so many people.'' She reached over and patted my arm.
I sat there thinking about my Uncle Rich, then she said, ``You know, it almost seems as though he talks because he enjoys Thanksgiving so much.''
``I know,'' I said. ``And when he plays his accordion, that's a lot like talking.'' Uncle Rich was musical. He played both the accordion and a big xylophone he had at my grandparents' house.
The next morning, my brother and sisters and I put all the leaves in the dining room table then added two card tables and draped the whole thing with white tablecloths. The hybrid table extended well into the living room, but would accommodate 21 people. It was an unstated rule that the entire company had to be included at one table, no matter how funny-looking the table became.
Next, we went round and round adding all the things you had to have for Thanksgiving: glasses for water and glasses for cider, trays of celery and carrot sticks, bowls of olives, the special glass server that always held the thin mints, the Chinese bowl for the salted nuts. In the center of the table, Dad set the biggest pumpkin from our garden; then we decorated it with the fall harvest and brown oak leaves.
By the time all 18 Browns were present and three students from India, Scotland, and France, I was weak from hunger, but still wondering about my Uncle Rich.
We waited forever for the 21 plates to be filled and passed around. At last we bowed our heads for a moment of silent thanksgiving. I heard the happy humming that Uncle Rich always made as he admired the food on his plate. He rocked gently back and forth. My aunt put an arm around him and gave him a hug, then we all began to eat.
The three students exclaimed over the food. Everyone laughed and talked and ate and ate. Daddy called down the length of the table, ``How do you like those sweet potatoes, Rich? Are they all right?'' Uncle Rich grinned and nodded, and the happy noise in his chest became almost a growl of pleasure. But he didn't say anything as he bent back over his plate.
Long after we had begun washing up the dishes, Uncle Rich was still at the table, carefully spooning up the last of his ice cream. I heard a loud snore from the living room. Uncle Jim, as usual, had fallen asleep. I heard my mother telling the three students about the tradition of Thanksgiving.
It was then that I made my move. Surely the best way to get Uncle Rich to talk would be to invite him up to my room to play. I went over and touched his shoulder. ``Uncle Rich?'' He stopped eating and smiled at me. ``Would you like to come up to my room and play?''
We went slowly and silently up the stairs. I was thinking about how I could show him the new doll I had been given for my birthday. Would that make him talk? But when we got into my bedroom, Marmalade the cat was asleep in a patch of sunlight right in the middle of my bed. At the sight of the two of us she jumped off and ran underneath the bed.
``Oh my!'' explained a voice I had never heard before. ``It's a kitty-cat!'' I stared at Uncle Rich, transported with excitement. He was beaming and rubbing his hands together, then very slowly he knelt down on the carpet and bent over to peer under the bed. So did I.
There, backed into the farthest corner, was Marmalade, her eyes glinting in the shadows.
``That's Marmalade,'' I whispered, not wanting to ruin the moment.
``Marmalade,'' Uncle Rich repeated after me, nodding his head. Marmalade came out from under the bed and rubbed against Uncle Rich. Together, we patted her for a while before we went back downstairs.
After that, things were the same as always. Uncle Jim woke up from his nap. Uncle Rich played the accordion. When we clapped, he smiled and made the humming noise in his chest, but he didn't do any more talking. I never heard him speak again, though he was a big part of all the Thanksgivings of my growing-up years.
Many years later, at his memorial service, I gathered once again with all the Browns. We sang ``Home, Home on the Range,'' because it had been Uncle Rich's favorite. Afterwards, we shared stories of our Uncle Rich, and I told of the day when I was 9 and he spoke to me. Other people shared the things he had said to them.
But it wasn't his speaking to me that seems important now, nor is it that I will think of him each year at Thanksgiving. It is more that his way of experiencing life touched everyone who knew him. He taught us something about joy.