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The Roundtable

Listener Essay - One Thanksgiving

  Lynn Elliot Francis has studied privately with authors in upstate New York, where she lives, and at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton, Vermont.

My brother, Nick, as a child, had trouble pronouncing words, a problem no member of our family had noticed until his kindergarten teacher sent home a note: Teach this child to speak.

“Around the rugged rock, the ragged rooster ran,” Nick repeated, in the weeks following an appointment with a speech therapist, “Around the rugged rock the ragged rooster ran.”

Nick and I devised a secret plan to appear home on Thanksgiving as a surprise one year when we were both in college. He had grown into a handsome, broad-shouldered guy with a good natured vigor and a gentle teasing sense of humor, making him the ideal companion for any adventure. He arrived on my campus after a one day hitch-hike from Minnesota to Ohio, triumphant:

“Four rides,” he repeated with relish, “Crossed five states in just four rides.”

We left early Thursday morning. Nick had borrowed a hat from my roommate, Elaine, a precious hat hand-knitted by a friend with a design of plum tomatoes. She never should have lent it, no matter the weather, but Nick brimmed with an irresistible charisma.

The cars that passed us were laden with entire families dressed in finery and on their way towards a feast. Icy Ohio snowflakes were blown by a biting wind in our faces. But a low slung Pontiac stopped for us. In the front seat were two young guys driving from Akron, Ohio to Florida, who kept their long-term goal carefully in mind, never driving over the speed of forty-five miles an hour, while they passed reefer after reefer between them. Nick fell asleep and I fell into a state of stupefied gratitude we were being taken from the edge of Ohio to Maryland. Nick’s luck had held.

We had entertained ourselves on the side of the road by enacting our parents’ reaction. “How did you two do it?’” Nick said, miming their astonishment, “All that way! And we’ll be really modest,” he continued, deepening his voice and gesturing with one hand loftily, “Oh, it was nothing, a lark!”

It was looking like our heroic dream would be realized. It was five-thirty as we were approaching the Beltway, a four-lane highway wrapping around Washington, D.C., just the time our parents would be sliding off their coats at the Epstein’s house, friends of my parents with whom we always shared Thanksgiving. A question was cast from the front seat to the back: did we want to be dropped off before the getting on the Beltway, or continue, going south around the city? Nick was groggy with sleep. I tried to remember the sequence of exits on the Beltway. We chose south.

We had chosen poorly. We were whipping around the city going further and further from our destination with each rotation of the wheels. When they dropped us off, we were all the way on the southern side of D.C. Wide wet flakes fell out of the darkness and melted on our coats and heads. Nick handed them our contribution towards gas. As the Pontiac pulled onto the highway away from us, we saw peeking out the back window the plum tomatoes of Elaine’s hat. It had slipped from Nick’s head while he slept.

No one was in any mood to pick us up even if they could have seen us standing in the dark by the entrance ramp. We had to work our way back upstream to the original point of error some other way. It was a glum twosome who trooped up the road to the bus station. I walked up the three rubber treaded steps of the northbound bus to ask plaintively the fare to Rockville. I called the amount back to Nick, who stood on the asphalt, fingering the change in his pocket. He pulled out a fistful and thumbed it, shaking his head, dolefully. I backed down the steps and we stood together on the asphalt like a couple of ragged roosters. The bus driver gruffly waved us onto the empty bus. It was eight-thirty when we arrived at the deserted outdoor bus station in Rockville .

These were the days of public telephones with telephone books attached by cords. We looked up the Epstein’s number and gave it a try. A busy signal.

We sat on the aluminum bench on the concrete island and watched the wet snow fall past the roof of the overhang. We ached with exhaustion, hunger and uncertainty. Every time we slid the quarter into the slot and dialed the number, we got the same busy signal, and the quarter tumbled down to the catch basin . We jogged around the concrete island to stay warm , chanting nonsensically:

“Jogging has changed my life!”

We tried again, to see if jogging had changed our lives. Busy. We were so close we could almost touch the Thanksgiving festivities with our numbed fingertips.

“Jogging has changed my life!” we cried, delirious, “Jogging has changed my life!”

Busy. We called home. Our parents, just back from the Epsteins, turned around and picked us up. We made ourselves PB&Js in the kitchen and were grateful.

It wasn’t a Thanksgiving of feasting or warmth or comfort. It was a Thanksgiving of struggle, mistakes, perseverance, and the humor of comrades. It is perhaps my favorite Thanksgiving, because I spent it with my brother, Nick, just the two of us, running around that rugged rock together.

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