Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In which I experience the joy of serving on Thanksgiving November 25, 2016

I KNEW IF I STAYED HOME Thanksgiving morning in to early afternoon, melancholy would seep in. No matter how hard I tried. This would be my first Thanksgiving without any of my grown children home to celebrate. So I needed to divert my thoughts from missing them.

The setting for Faribault's Community Thanksgiving Dinner.

The setting for Faribault’s Community Thanksgiving Dinner, which began 30 years ago in a restaurant.

I didn’t even think. I knew exactly where I would go, what I would do. And that was to head to the Faribault American Legion and volunteer, with my husband, at the Community Thanksgiving Dinner. That volunteerism, that mingling with other volunteers and guests, was, I will selfishly admit, about helping me as much as helping others. It worked.

Bagged lunches await pick up by guests and by those delivering meals to homes.

Bagged lunches await pick up by guests and by those delivering meals to homes.

When you take the focus off your sadness, happiness shines. I felt myself smiling as we delivered 12 meals to five homes, each recipient grateful for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and bagged left-overs of a turkey sandwich and apple.

Randy shuffles meals and bags around as we prepare to deliver them.

Randy shuffles meals and bags around as we prepare to deliver them.

From a mobile home to a condo to an apartment to single family homes, we brought not only food, but also holiday happiness: To the woman recovering from pneumonia with her husband in the hospital. To the woman whose meal I left on the kitchen counter per her instructions to also take the $5 (given to the Faribault Foundation) lying near the cracked open exterior side door. To the woman who answered the door in her bathrobe. To the woman who waited outside her apartment building for us to arrive. All welcomed us with gracious gratitude.

A child's artwork on a placemat reminds diners of life's many blessings.

A child’s artwork on a placemat reminds diners to be thankful.

Those blessings of giving and receiving exude the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Hundreds of pounds of turkey are baked along with hundreds of pounds of potatoes peeled...

Hundreds of pounds of turkey are baked along with hundreds of pounds of potatoes peeled… (This image for illustration purposes only and not taken at the community dinner.)

Back at the Legion, Randy and I paused to eat. Volunteers expected to plate and package 1,200 meals in three hours. From conversations I overheard and my observation that the kitchen ran out of whole turkey (and resorted to pressed/processed turkey), guests exceeded the anticipated number.

All tables are festively decorated and all guests served at their tables.

All tables are festively decorated and all guests served at their tables. Children contribute their art.

I’ve often wondered who attends the Community Thanksgiving Dinner, meant for anyone no matter their financial means, their age, their anything. Seated at our dinner table were a retired long-time Faribault Woolen Mill employee dining with his 20-something grandson, who had to work later in the day at Target; a retired hospital employee and Vietnam War vet with nowhere to go for dinner; and a couple, like us, without children at home. I also spotted a neighbor, church friends (both dining and volunteering) and others I know from the community.

Kids decorate placemats.

Kids decorate placemats.

I was particularly impressed by the number of kids helping. I applaud parents who are teaching their children at such a young age the joy of serving others. Watching a girl, perhaps six, carry a plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, a dinner roll and cranberries to a diner, is one of those moments that impresses hope for the future.

Volunteers dish up meals.

Volunteers dish up meals for take-out and to serve to diners.

Likewise, observing others my age and older scurrying to serve the sit-down meals reaffirms that goodness exists.

Randy and I filled in where needed. I primarily poured milk while he greeted, served and more.

Some three hours after we arrived at the Legion, Randy and I left. As we exited the parking lot, I was already calling our 22-year-old son in Boston, home alone, but planning a Thanksgiving dinner for Saturday with friends. I called the daughter in northeastern Wisconsin, catching her as she returned from the grocery store with her husband before going to the home of friends for dinner. I texted our eldest, in California with her in-laws. She also texted photos of her family, including our granddaughter. It helped to hear their voices, to be able to tell them, “I love you.”

Preparing for diners by plating pumpkin pie.

Preparing for diners by plating pumpkin pie.

The reality of life is that we cannot always be with those we love most. On those holidays, we need to stretch beyond ourselves and our feelings. On this Thanksgiving, that made all the difference for me.

FYI: Later in the afternoon, Randy and I joined our nephew and his family, along with our niece-in-law’s family, for a Thanksgiving dinner. We were grateful for their inclusion of us. I laughed and smiled and ate more turkey, so thankful for the blessings of the day and of life.

I took all of these photos with my smartphone rather than my DSLR, limiting my photography so I could focus on volunteering.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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