In Memory of Stella Maris – A Thanksgiving Story
“Thanksgiving is not all about food,” lectured Sister Benedicta, pointing her authoritative index finger at me and at the rest of her first grade class. “Remember the poor, and give generously to our food drive,” she commanded. “I want that crate stocked full of canned goods in three days. Do we understand each other?”
Sister Benedicta wasn’t a mean person, but she was a tall woman, and when she stood in full habit in front of her six year old children (she never referred to us as students) with her finger wagging, General Patton could not have been a more imposing presence. All of us introspectively swore on our defenseless lives that we would empty our cupboards of every tin cylinder we could sneak out of our house. If anything in heaven or on earth was certain, it was that we were we going to fill that crate with peas, soups, beans, gravy, potatoes, corn and all things canned. I remember Dennis Keeler whispering to me on the bus, “I am in big trouble when I get home,” because he had loaded his back pack with so much iron that he dragged with both hands the dead weight across the hallway, hoisting it like a gunny sack into the classroom.
The whole school couldn’t wait another minute for the Thanksgiving holiday break, so when the final bell rang at Stella Maris Regional School in Sag Harbor, uniformed children attacked the bus like our soldiers at Normandy. Freedom at last! And tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, would mean turkey and pastry desserts for everyone!
For my family, Thanksgiving Day meant a long car ride to Astoria, Queens to visit Grandma Honey and Aunt Marie and Uncle Joe and to run around all day unsupervised with my cousins. My family was quite an addition to the bedlam at my grandma’s house; eight of us tumbling out of a yellow Rambler. Including my other relatives on my mother’s side, there were no less than twenty three cousins arriving to romp unbridled at the large but unassuming house on Fourteenth Street near the Triborough Bridge. What a day to be a kid!
As one member of a large family, pandemonium was fairly normal for me. It bothered my Uncle Joe after a while though; he didn’t like the noise during the football game, so he gave each of us a quarter to disappear from the parlor for an hour. He did this every year, and it was customary for a few of my older cousins to instigate some distractions during the game, inciting him to fork over the coin so they could go to the candy shack before dinner. “Come over here, you beasts!” was Uncle Joe’s booming directive, and we lined up like dominoes. “Here’s a quarter…Get lost!” It was all very amicable, and lots of fun. Uncle Joe always had enough quarters for everyone, and occasionally to the older ones, he passed along a dollar bill, and so my elder cousins took care to remind us all to stay away for an entire hour, and that if we messed up this arrangement, they would have to kill us dead. I stuffed my quarter straight-away into my pocket, passed by the kitchen and looked inside to see my mom and my aunts shuffling steaming pots and huge platters. I headed outside to see what was cooking in the backyard.
Oddly, it was quiet back there. I looked around and decided that my cousins took to the street toward the candy shack, and I put it into my head that if I hurried, it was likely I would catch up to them. The problem was that I didn’t really know where the candy shack was located, as I was far too young to have ventured there before, but I thought it was nearby, just around the corner.
They say that when one entered the labyrinth of Daedalus, upon taking just a few steps from the portal, one might wander aimlessly for a lifetime before discovering a suitable egress. When I trotted around the corner that morning, I lost my bearings in an instant. My mouth went dry. I felt anxious. The landscape began to swirl as in a whirlpool, and from within the spinning currents, there appeared the bricks of unfamiliar row houses; the parked cars lifted from the concrete and they whirled madly before me. “I must not panic!’ I thought to myself, but I started to run franticly through the maze of jumbled sidewalks, and my fears broke through in one solid voice: “It is hopeless! You cannot find your way! It is hopeless!” and I knew that my continued flight would end badly. I slackened my pace and my tears surged so suddenly I stopped moving completely.
As a six-year-old child lost in a strange city, what else could I do? I sat at the curb’s edge in the middle of a random street and I cried. With my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands, I wept. I can’t be sure how long I sat crying, but before too long, emerging from the sobbing haze as it were, a thin voice prevailed:
“Little one! Hey there! Little boy! Are you lost?”
I turned, and from between the peak of a shingled roof, leaning forward from a small, third-story window, a young man was calling to me. I brushed myself together, and I and shook my head, “Yes!” and in the briefest of moments, he was at my side speaking to me. I recall he was well-dressed, wearing a suit befitting the holiday, and he was perhaps thirty years old. His voice was kind and his countenance cheerful.
He may have asked all of the usual questions one would expect under the circumstances, and I am sure I obliged his every enquiry; my name, the description of my grandmother’s house, and all things else. It was fairly remarkable what this stranger did next. Without fuss, he said something like, “Well then, young man. Let’s find that house, shall we?” and he extended his well-groomed hand toward mine, and reaching up, I saw that he offered to me two fingers to hold as we walked. In this manner we set out upon our search, talking all the while, and his voice was benevolent, and his gait obliging to my tiny steps. I recall my fears had subsided, and when we arrived at the façade of each house on the street, with his free hand outstretched and finger pointing, the man asked as in a game, “Is this the one?” and when we approached another house, and yet another, he asked each time, “Is this the one?” I can’t say how far we walked or how many houses we surveyed, but before too long, there before me was a familiar house, and in the driveway sat our yellow Rambler, and I was no longer lost.
In my excitement, I ran away from the well-dressed stranger toward the entrance door, and I did not have the wherewithal to be less than completely self-absorbed. I never looked back; not even to say thank you. I ran mightily through the gate and into the foyer. I burst into the kitchen, proclaiming, “I am safe! I made it back! I am safe!” and to my astonishment, my mother with my aunts, all bustling with platters now full to the brim with victuals ready to be served, repeated, as if spoken a hundred times, “No children in the kitchen!” My mother, grinning freely, addressed me directly:
“What on earth are you blabbering?” she asked, raising her forefinger and pointing toward the parlor. “Go to your cousins and tell everyone we will be eating in ten minutes…spread the word.” And with that reasonable request from my mom, I left the crowded kitchen.
It took me a minute to realize that absolutely no one knew that I was missing. I tried to tell my story to anyone who might listen, but it was dismissed in a flurry, as my siblings with my cousins were still racing around enjoying all kinds of mischief. We still couldn’t bother Uncle Joe, so the whole ordeal took less than an hour. My cousins did, in fact, go the candy shack, and they were keen to show me their sweet treasures. I was envious, I admit, but suddenly remembering, I checked my trousers and within my pocket, I still had my quarter. I was feeling pretty hungry by then, and I couldn’t wait for the turkey and the pastry desserts!
Years have passed and I think about that man on every Thanksgiving Day. It bothers me a bit that I can’t remember a single feature of the stranger’s face; perhaps one cannot retain that kind of detail on a guardian angel.