One of my most cherished Thanksgivings occurred on a year when none of my traditional family was present. Some might think that a tragedy and others a blessing! It was not a Norman Rockwell painting. I was fortunate enough to have decades of childhood holidays that looked very much like those scenes – with a Puerto Rican twist.
Aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, brothers, parents and sometimes dear friends, too: all of us circling my momma’s buffet table in prayer and thanksgiving, then settling in to eat ourselves silly with plates of turkey, green beans, pie and arroz con habichuelas (a Boricuan staple). However, it was a Thanksgiving without them that made me appreciate our Great American Holiday evermore.
I’d recently moved to El Paso, Texas – two thousand miles from all of my beloved kin in the Virginia/DC Metro area. My husband had to work Thanksgiving eve, so we couldn’t fly home to be with everyone. In lieu of scampering about the kitchen baking with my mom, aunts and grandma, I sought out a meal-delivery program in my new community. I went in with the intent of working at a soup kitchen, aiding the less fortunate and needy, but when I saw that my local firehouse was on the list of meal requesters, I stopped.
I’d never considered the people not eating their turkey in case mine became a bonfire, and they were tasked to put it out. Firemen, police, border patrol, 911 operators, EMTs, paramedics, nurses, doctors, and so forth. There were thousands of men and women who didn’t get to spend the holiday with loved ones because they were on-call to the needs of us – their countrymen. Even American soldiers got the day off if not in a combat zone. (I know because my husband, father, and brother are military.) It was a watershed moment.
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So early that Thanksgiving morning, instead of rising to prepare the feast, my husband and I picked up Thanksgiving meals lovingly cooked by the culinary queens at our local church. We went to our firehouse with steaming parcels of turkey, laden with fixings, and pumpkin pie to boot, and were enthusiastically greeted by five amazing firefighters who didn’t just thank us, they embraced us as family.
They welcomed us, two strangers, into their world: the firemen sleeping quarters, the dressing area hung with heavy helmets and gear, the fire engines polished to a shine, and lastly, the kitchen with a long, modest table where our Thanksgiving offerings had been admirably arranged.
They laughed with us, shared stories of their own families, rang alarm bells for our delight, and even honored me with a ride on the firehouse mascot. This is West Texas, my friends. It wasn’t a truck or horse, but a Harley Davidson motorcycle gleaming bright as a steel water hose. We were only with these five men a couple of hours, but they are branded on my life. I was moved to gratitude beyond words. For a writer, that is something.
Later, when we sat down to our own Thanksgiving meal, we were remorseful without them at the table. It made me appreciate the significance of the first Thanksgiving. An American town of friends, coworkers and servicemen, coming together to say, We might be a long way from home, but we’ve got each other—a new kind of family and we’re grateful.
SARAH MCCOY is the author of the international bestseller The Baker’s Daughter (Crown) and The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico (Random House). She is currently working on her third contracted novel to be published by Crown. She currently lives in El Paso, Texas, with her husband and dog Gilbert.