This Thanksgiving held changes for my family.
My mom has been putting in long hours for a while now, caring for her own mother, so that my 93-year-old Nana can continue to enjoy the familiarity and comfort of living in her home of more than 60 years.
In addition to being plumb tuckered out most days, mom was also sick heading into Thanksgiving day.
So for the first time ever, we had our small family Thanksgiving out at a local restaurant instead of at my mom’s house. No preparation. No dishes to do afterward. No leftovers to wrap and store. However odd it felt to set aside tradition this year, no one could refute the sense in it.
We were seated at a spacious, horseshoe booth at about 12:30. The meal was catered, buffet style.
Our server was a young woman named Kim. After making introductions around the table, I asked Kim if she would have any time after her shift ended to join her own family for Thanksgiving meal or desert. She paused, smiled in that way people so often do when they are trying to sound positive about something negative, and said, “All of my family has passed away.”
“Oh no…” I replied. “All of them? Or do you mean there’s just no one local?”
Kim sighed, though her half-smile stayed in place. “Well, I have some distant relatives, cousins. But my own family are all gone now. I figured I’d work today so that people who do have families could be with them.”
I took a moment to just hold Kim’s gaze and let that heavy disclosure stand in silence. Then I said, “Well, we will be your family for today. Let us be your comfortable table, no stress, OK?”
Kim was genuinely appreciative as she explained the buffet setup, then went to fill our drink order.
The meal was good. Plenty of offerings. And I was glad for my mother’s reprieve.
Kim stopped by many times to check on us. She was pleasant and did seem to relax and just be herself when she came to our table. After serving dessert, she brought the bill.
“Kim,” I said, “would you consider yourself an open person?”
Her eyes were curious. She nodded. “Yes, I think I am.”
I stood up to face her. “Good to know. Because I think you need a hug.”
No sooner were my arms opening than she was in them, hugging me back with all her might. She pressed her cheek into my shoulder. “I do need one. I really do. You have no idea…”
Then she just sobbed. “Thank you. You really have no idea.”
I did, though. I had an idea. And I went with it.
By the time she returned with the credit card, she’d collected herself. Her eyes still had that after-good-cry glassy look, and her cheeks were rosy. But something inside of her had shifted. Her smile was real. She just felt — lighter. She gave me one more tight squeeze as we prepared to leave. It felt like hugging a friend.
I’m sometimes afraid when I share such stories that people will get the wrong impression — that it will come across like, “Aren’t I a wonderful person? Look how nice I am! Don’t you wish you could be me?”
I tell these stories in hopes that they will cause people to feel inspired, excited, hopeful and curious about the fun and possibilities of connecting with others. And I really do try to keep things in balance by sharing my failures as well. I want this to be a collective story about us, not just about me.
However, I’m sharing this particular story right now for another reason altogether.
Truth be told, I had no intention of ever writing about it at all.
Then my sister, Shannan, posted about it on social media:
My brother Erik gave to a woman yesterday during our Thanksgiving dinner at [a restaurant]… He didn’t know her, she was our waitress… but he knew she needed it instinctively… and it left her in tears! But in a good way❤️😇~ always be kind! Erik Tyler ❤️ ~ Thankful for the lessons that you are teaching me even today… Love you big brother!
Some responses to the post included these:
We need more people like you in the world, Erik.
I don’t think they make men like you anymore.
You are a rare breed.
The comments, as well as the post itself, were all very nice. However — and I’m being completely honest here — it all caught me rather off guard. To me, the fact that we were eating Thanksgiving dinner out at a restaurant instead of home was far and away more noteworthy than my hugging a girl who was feeling alone on a holiday.
When did showing kindness to a stranger become such a big deal?
About ten years ago, I saw a movie called Children of Men. It’s apocalyptic. I hate apocalyptic movies, but I think I was tricked into seeing it by a friend. (Darn you, whoever you are!)
As I recall, the scene opens with a news station announcing a notable death, not of the oldest living person — but of the youngest. The deceased had been killed in a tavern brawl. The newscaster solemnly lists the young man’s name along with his age in years, months, days and hours. This is followed by the name of the new youngest person alive, also down to the hour.
For some reason, no one on earth had been able to conceive for over 20 years. Every elementary, middle and high school in the world was abandoned — overrun now with trees and wild animals.
As it turns out, a teen does become pregnant after all this time. No one knows why. Other nations hear about it somehow, and global war breaks out. Governments seek to gain control of this girl, to experiment on her with the knowledge that the country who discovers how to reintroduce conception will not only hold absolute power, but could also choose to be the sole nation to survive on the planet.
It’s all such an icky thought, I know, hence my loathing of apocalyptic films. So I’ll try to get to the point here quickly. (I do have one, I promise.)
There was something weird — creepy, unnerving — about birth being such a big deal.
Don’t miss this. It’s the crux of things.
Every birth is a big deal. But it’s not the rarity of the occasion that makes a pregnancy or delivery remarkable. We feel ooshy-gooshy about baby announcements because this one — no matter how many others came before — is special.
Each one touches people in different ways.
Each one reminds us once again of innocence and new starts.
Each one changes lives.
Trust me when I say, after having seen Children of Men, that there is a world of difference between joyfully welcoming another baby into the world for all the wonder it brings…
…and having the world gasp in astonishment because there is a baby at all.
Like babies, every kind act is a big deal. And as with my sister’s post, I think we should celebrate together when good happens in the world. I guess what I’m saying is that I just wish empathy, compassion and human connection didn’t draw attention to themselves merely on account of their scarcity.
I wish that, as with babies, we all were able to celebrate simple kindnesses in our lives, moment by moment, for both their individuality — and their abundance.
Wishing the world were different won’t change anything, though.
As Gandhi put it…
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.
We need not wait to see what others do.