For many years, instead of eating Thanksgiving dinner I called up the local health club and asked if I could use their sauna, wrapped in a plastic suit while doing all manner of calisthenics. Joe, the manager, always said yes and never charged me an entry fee. One year he had to help me back to my car, then realized I was too weak to drive and brought me home himself.

I was a high school and college wrestler and every year there was a match over Thanksgiving weekend for which I had to lose five or six or eight pounds.

But because it was a holiday with family gathered I would sit at the table, inhaling all the food smells and doing a bit of nibbling here and there. Then I would head outside to do penance with a long jog through the neighborhood and then a sauna, watching the water weight drain from my body, drip by impossible drip.

After college I moved to New York city and Thanksgiving became for me more of what I understood others enjoyed. I drove home to be with my family in New Jersey and stuffed my face on the appointed day with everyone else. But, I soon discovered, Thanksgiving was not done having its way with me.

There was a girl back home that I had loved from afar ever since the early days of high school. Her name was Cathlin Baker, the younger sister of my good friend, and so in the language of high school, off limits.

But now we were in our 20s, and every year on Thanksgiving night we would find each other at a neighborhood bar called the Rathskeller, a subterranean treasure located in the basement of the Dunellen Hotel. There was always a big crowd, reveling in this annual hometown reunion, but by the end of the evening Cathlin and I would find each other and sit shoulder to shoulder comparing notes on our lives while Fat Larry served up another pitcher of beer. Fat Larry was Lawrence Kerwin, the owner of the Dunellen Hotel, who sat the entrance to the bar welcoming everyone to his party. We had grown up at the Rathskeller, tried out our first fake id’s on Fat Larry, who mostly accepted them unless the work was so inferior he felt mildly disrespected and told us to try again the next night.

After last call, many of us would head back to Cathlin’s house, it was close to the bar, and usually end up sleeping there, scattered about the basement of her family’s home, the detritus of our high school gang growing smaller each year as friends got married, moved away or found other traditions.

Not me. I kept coming back, year after year, until it was just me at the end of the night with Cathlin in her basement. The two of us were finally alone and our hands reached out to each other, my courage finally bold enough to consider the next step.

But sometimes things go bump in the night, especially on Thanksgiving. The noise came from upstairs, in the kitchen, a thump and a bump and a scurry of feet. It was 3 a.m.

“It must be my parents,” Cathlin said. “I’ll go up and tell them we are home. Maybe they are worried.”

Cathlin walked up the stairs but stopped at the door and turned around.

“Something doesn’t feel right,” she said.

And so I led the way, ascending the stairs slowly to the kitchen. But before we could get there we heard another scuffling of feet and then a crashing sound outside in the bushes.

It turned out there was a burglar in the kitchen. He had entered through the window, attracted by a purse on the dining room table, and had been hiding behind the basement door when Cathlin first climbed the stairs.

He made a hasty exit, leaping back out the window, the purse in his hands, and then raced down the street. The noise woke up the whole house — Cathlin’s parents, her sister and husband. We all stood dumbfounded.

“A burglar, on Thanksgiving night,” we said.

We called the police and two officers showed up — one old and one quite young, a guy we had gone to high school with, a surly sort now wearing a badge and a gun and grilling us about what we were doing in the basement.

“Nothing,” I confessed. It was Thanksgiving and nothing good happened then.

The moment lost, Cathlin slept in her own room that night while I slept in the basement alone, wrapped in an old blanket, a faded Teddy bear for company. In the morning we went our separate ways, to separate cities. It was a near miss that widened over the years. There would be no return engagement at Fat Larry’s the next Thanksgiving or the one after that.


Years later, however, Cathlin moved to New York city to attend seminary and we began dating at the start of her first semester, trying to discover if a decades-long friendship could be the foundation for something more. We knew each other well and not at all. But by Thanksgiving we felt close enough to suggest sharing the holiday, first at my parent’s house and then at her parent’s. We woke up early to beat the traffic out to New Jersey. It was unseasonably cold and I can still remember walking down the block, my feet crunching on a fresh frost.

I had not driven my car on a long time. I lived in Tribeca and back then it was mostly a ghost town, a place time had forgotten, the proof in its lack of no parking signs.

As we approached my car I noticed a small flickering light coming from the back seat. When I looked in the window I saw a homeless man curled up beside a few tea candles. He looked cold but also cozy back there, surrounded by bags of clothing and plate of rice and beans.

I looked around, half expecting a camera crew to pop out and say surprise, the setup to some sort of practical joke. But the street was deserted. A harsh wind blew off the Hudson River.

There was no way I could roust a homeless man on Thanksgiving morning, I decided.

“I guess we will have to take the train home,” I said to Cathlin.

Some may have looked at that moment and decided I was not the guy for them, but Cathlin smiled, reached out her hand and we took the first step in our life together, our fingers intertwined as we headed to the subway station while in my car a homeless man slept soundly.

The man continued to live in my car through the holiday season but then some aggressive decorating — a wreath on the front bumper, snowmen etched in the snowy windows, a small Christmas tree — drew the attention of the police who evicted him. I never had the chance to say goodbye.


Thanksgiving came full circle. Now it was Cathlin who could not eat, her plate pushed toward the centerpiece and candles as she tried to distance herself from the food. We were married now and living in Tallahassee, Fla. I was in graduate school, Cathlin a hospice chaplain, and we were too poor to afford the plane fare home for the holiday to be with our families. Instead, we drove south near Sarasota to share the day with Jim and Joann Kidd, friends of my parents from the Vineyard. Years later, when the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury began its search for a new minister it was Jim Kidd, a parishioner, who told them he knew the perfect candidate.

But at that moment, Cathlin was nauseated and left the table to lie down. I joined her, placing a warm washcloth on her forehead as we went over the list of foods she ate that might have made her sick. Then our eyes met.

“Do you think?” Cathlin asked.

“Could be,” I answered.

A trip to the drugstore, one still open on Thanksgiving night, confirmed that Cathlin was pregnant with our first child. We toasted the moment with Jim and Joann, raising our glasses, Cathlin’s now filled with water, to the mysterious future.

That was 17 years ago, and today as I watch my teenage son and almost teenage daughter help plan our Thanksgiving meal, one that will take place with various family members arriving by Zoom, I am struck by the fact that the holiday has never been a normal one for me. But come what may, harsh weigh-ins, burglars, a car turned homeless shelter, new life or a worldwide pandemic, I will continue to drop to my knees in joy and sorrow for all that has been given and all that has been lost.