A Thanksgiving Story (Maybe)

I’m not sure if this is about Thanksgiving or not. Mostly it’s about Debbie.

When my son, David, graduated from college years ago, he came home and took a job at Johns Hopkins University. He set his sights on vet school, so this job was interim at best. But there was a surprise waiting. Debbie.

They were an unlikely pair from the start. She was much older, never married, and a lover of cats and monkeys. She was bubbly and an avid reader and extremely religious. They became friends.

As Thanksgiving approached that first year, David asked if we could invite Debbie. There was nothing unusual in the request, as we held a long tradition of an open table. It had seen some of my former students, college friends of my kids, neighbors, and several people whose names have now been washed away with time.

Debbie seemed thrilled, and she fit right in. She brought a flower arrangement in a wicker cornucopia, which I placed in the middle of the table. She was a perfect guest, really. She talked to my parents about growing up in New York City. She got right down on the floor with the little kids and played Legos. And as easily as she did those things, as I got to know her, she was not shy with words like “depression” or “medication.” She allowed you to get the whole picture of who she was.

Even after David got accepted to vet school and left Baltimore, Debbie still came to our house on the day the turkey was carved.

And then, on a nondescript evening while I was watching TV, the phone rang. A woman identified herself as someone who worked at Hopkins. “We need to get a message to David,” she said. “Debbie committed suicide.” The woman cried, apologized for crying, and then cried some more.

At Debbie’s funeral, the minister invited anyone who wanted to tell a story to come to the pulpit. Almost everyone who spoke told a tale that involved a holiday. “She was always with us at Christmas,” a friend said through her tears. “We shared many Thanksgivings,” said another. By the time the speeches were finished, I wondered if Debbie had ever taken her last bite of pumpkin pie at our house and then driven to her second (or third) Thanksgiving in another neighborhood. Everyone loved her. She lit up a holiday table, apparently all over town.

Today I’m deep in preparations. Along with Pilgrim candles and my fancy napkins, I take Debbie’s cornucopia out of the closet. I picture the group that will congregate in a few days. And this is the moment, every year, when I get sad all over again that I won’t see her there. But then, when I put some gourds and Indian corn inside it and look at it in its place of honor, I can so easily remember the best thing she always brought to the table — her.

So I guess this is a Thanksgiving story after all. Thanks to Debbie. And thanks for Debbie.

A Date When I Got to Be Dorothy Parker

Bud. I almost disqualified Bud based on his name alone. I was 50, but I thought I was still too young to go out with a person named Bud. On the other hand — as a divorced woman — I was flush with a need for fiscal responsibility, so I was determined to make good on my dating service investment. My strategy was to date all candidates who didn’t ask about threesomes or sound psychotic in their introductory email message.

Bud led me to believe he was a football coach by telling me, “I’m a football coach.” Technically, he turned out to be a little less than this. But by this point I was actively telling potential dates I was a writer. The bigger truth was happening 9-5 in a drab cubicle, with me hunched over, straightening out murky paragraphs that someone else (a real writer) had constructed.

He suggested we — who in the cold light of day had become a lowly editor and a defensive coordinator at a high school known only for its mathematics department — meet at a sports bar. It’s noisy in those places, yes. But you can lose yourself in a bank of televisions on the wall, everything from NASCAR to a tennis tournament in France if there’s a lull in the conversation. We settled in and ordered a pitcher of beer to share.

It turned out he loved the idea of what I did for a living. This hardly ever happened to me. Most men thought something like brain surgeon or sex therapist would have been livelier, so I was surprised when Bud wanted to delve into my occupation.

We moved quickly beyond the difference between semicolon and comma. Then he started quizzing me on the definitions of homonyms that had always confused him, like “except” and “accept.” I found I was even boring myself, which was hard to do. But whatever answer I’d come up with, Bud did a little hitting himself on the side of the head in wonderment as if I’d written the Oxford English Dictionary.

You can’t underestimate the power of someone mistaking you for a member of the Algonquin Round Table just as you take that first sip of cold Yuengling. As you may have figured out by now, it’s usually all about me.

I liked the place, too. I could tell that pleased him. He confided that he came here often, that it was the usual meeting place for him and his friends. And then . . . what do you know? They started streaming through the door, one or two at a time.

“Ask her a question about words. Ask her anything,” he said to the group that had now slid into our booth. I felt like the guy at the sideshow who could guess your weight within two pounds. There was nothing to it, but these men thought I was a genius. I did what I imagine Dorothy Parker would have done. I went with it. Between quick tutorials on stuff most people remembered from 6th grade, I took long, deep, delicious sips. And against my better judgment, I ate loaded potato skins and Buffalo wings for dinner.

At home, I got on my computer and — with an immediacy born of three unfortunate dates in a row — I started going through profiles. I stopped at one of a writer who lived in Maine. He was a long way from home, in every sense of the word. But I felt my fingers on the keys. And then I hit send.