The turkey was at the center of the table, surrounded by all its regular support staff: Mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce and more.

It was a joyous gathering, with smiles and jokes brightening the room. It was a Thanksgiving like a million other festive gatherings, but it also was different for me. I wasn’t with my family — at least not officially.

But the Gaynor clan sure made me feel like one of them that holiday in Texas in 1986. My close friend Jim, whom I met at South Dakota State University in 1980, had welcomed me into his home many times when we both lived in the Houston-Galveston area in the mid-1980s.

He wasn’t going to stand for me being alone on Thanksgiving, he said. I had spent the holiday by myself a few times by then, having moved away from South Dakota in 1982 as I began my restless, rootless journey across the western United States for decades.

I have always liked being alone. When I was a kid, my mom said I was happiest by myself. I think it’s one reason I became a writer, since time alone allowed words to form in my mind and I cobbled them together on pages in school, gaining recognition from other students and teachers.

So solitude was something I often sought, and still do.

But holidays are quite another thing. I remember my first Thanksgiving alone, in Reno, Nev., in 1983. My friend Ellen invited me to accompany her to dinner with friends, but I declined.

Instead, I went to my apartment, where I quickly discovered my bathroom ceiling had collapsed because an upstairs neighbor had allowed a tub to run over. My fridge was mostly empty, and few stores were open. I ended up walking down to a small grocery store owned by a nice young Vietnamese couple, where I bought a ham sandwich — they were out of turkey.

I munched on it while talking with my family on the phone as they wrapped up a feast on our farm. It was, without a doubt, the worst holiday of my life.

So three years later, when Jim, and more importantly, his mom Maxine invited — make that insisted — I join them for Thanksgiving, I was glad to accept. The Gaynors were and are a lot like the Lawrences, a large, boisterous, loving bunch of nuts.

We had a wonderful time, with great food just part of the occasion. The teasing, the jokes and the loud laughter were more important to make me feel welcome and to give thanks for being with a family on that special day.

During my three years in Texas, I was “adopted” by the Gaynors, joining them for holidays, birthdays, a family wedding and just regular days when we would relax and have fun together. Jim and I played softball and tennis, drank beer, ate tacos and Texas barbecue, and discussed life, jobs, family, women and football.

I miss the Gaynors a lot.

Jim Sr. and Maxine died more than a decade ago, and Jim’s brother Joe, who also became a close friend, died around the same time. I last saw Jim in 2011 when his wife Jodie insisted I fly down to Louisiana to spend time with them. Jim was coughing a lot, even as he lit another cigarette, but otherwise was himself, my close friend of three decades.

We shared more laughs and memories before I returned to South Dakota. A few months later, he called to tell me he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, the deadly consequences of decades of smoking. He died on July 27, 2012, the day after my dear sister Anita passed away after a 20-year war with breast cancer.

I will miss both Anita and Jim on Thanksgiving this year, but the memories of their lives and laughter do ease the sorrow. Instead of dwelling on sadness, I will give thanks for the Thanksgivings, and other days, I had with both.

Grace and I plan a modest holiday, but we’re very grateful a friend or two will join us at the table. Turkey is a treasured Thanksgiving tradition, but so is having family and friends to share it with you.

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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