A Thanksgiving gift remembered

When I was growing up in Minnesota, Thanksgiving always felt more like Christmas. In the weeks preceding the annual feast, our local radio stations, shopping malls, and high school choirs were already broadcasting the Jingle Bell spirit.Holiday lights decorated bare trees and old farmhouses, casting a soft medley of colors on the fresh blanket of snow. My twin brother and I lost no time crafting ways to be noticeably nice, not naughty.

Things haven't changed. Santa Claus makes his first appearance in the halls of most American malls even before Thanksgiving. Somewhere in the flurry of our snowy holiday season, the spirit of giving thanks buckles under the weight of a heavy Santa sack.

During my senior year in high school, in the weeks before Thanksgiving, I was working diligently on my college application essays. Varsity swim practice kept me at the pool until dinner, and I spent all my spare time pounding away on our upright as my senior piano recital loomed ominously near. Preparing for the approaching feast did not top my list of priorities.

One particularly cold night, after a long day at school, I took refuge in my bedroom and prepared to delve into The Scarlet Letter. But I couldn't concentrate. Earlier that day, I'd broken up with my first boyfriend, and while I knew it was the right decision, I was experiencing heartbreak for the first time.

Just as I opened the book, I heard a rap on my door. My father peered in and jingled his car keys.

"Put your coat on," he said gruffly, and without a word, I obeyed.

My father was constantly answering a nocturnal call to adventure. When I was 10, he awoke my whole family at 2 a.m. on a school night to show us the brightness of a moonlit sky after the season's first snowfall.

"You could read a newspaper in this light," he exclaimed as we staved off sleep.

When I was 14, he called us out of bed again, this time to watch the northern lights cast ethereal beams across the horizon.

"It makes you glad to be alive," he whispered as we swatted at the swarming mosquitoes.

So I assumed that night, just a few days before Thanksgiving, carried the promise of another luminous spectacle. It was already nearing midnight, but I didn't mind. The whirlwind of holiday preparations - plane tickets to be bought, turkey basting techniques to master, Christmas sales to take advantage of, jolly carols to relearn - couldn't bother us here.

The car seat was joltingly cold. As we waited for the engine to warm, my dad fiddled with the radio dial and settled on NPR. We listened, in silence, to a report predicting unprecedented turnout on the biggest shopping day of the year - the day after Thanksgiving. My father, easily annoyed by the marketing of Christmas, especially when it precedes even Thanksgiving, fiddled again with the dial. He settled on a '60s rock station, and we were off.

I stared through the steamy passenger's window at the deep, starry sky. I couldn't help wondering if the muddling of the true Thanksgiving spirit was contributing to my contrastingly downtrodden mood.

And yet, sitting there beside my father, I felt comforted by his presence and grew warmer as our boxy little Jetta sputtered along in the subzero night.

My dad began humming - off key - to the radio. I can still remember the verse, and his tired lilt echoing Don McLean: "But February made me shiver, with every paper I'd deliver. Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn't take one more step. I can't remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride. But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died. So bye, bye, Miss American pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry."

We went on like that for nearly an hour, listening to music and traversing the countryside on the outskirts of St. Cloud. We silently watched the moonlight shimmer against white, expansive fields.

When my dad finally pulled up to our house, it was after midnight. We still hadn't spoken, and I reached for the door.

"Beth," my father whispered. His eyes glistened almost imperceptibly. "Sometimes your heart has to be broken before you really know what you have." He smiled and squeezed my shoulder.

I wondered how my father had known of my heartbreak, and realized that what he had just given me was unpackagable, unmarketable, unsellable.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time when we celebrate a bountiful harvest and share what we've got - whether it be food, sound advice, or quality time.

I felt so small, sitting there in the passenger's seat beneath an endless sky. I could almost see the Wampanoags and the colonists in 1621, celebrating their mere survival.

My father worked too hard too many hours a day, and rarely made an appearance at my swim meets or piano recitals. But he never forgot what it means to spend time with his children, and he always seemed to know when we needed it most.

Elizabeth Armstrong is on the Monitor staff.

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