We were supposed to call him Grandpa Tom, but refused; after all, he wasn’t our “real” Grandpa. To my brother and I, he was a stranger, although recently married to our Grandma, the only thing we knew is the two of them were driving up from Peoria for Thanksgiving.

Neither of us was all that excited to see Grandpa Tom join us for the holiday. Ours was a small, but close, family. With one pair of grandparents in Maryland, along the Chesapeake Bay, and our widowed grandmother down in Illinois, we had celebrated each Thanksgiving by ourselves; with our own traditions.

Thanksgiving Day would start early, our sister helping Mom with the turkey. My brother and I would often help our Dad at the greenhouses in the morning, followed by our annual football game in a field near our home. Dad was the quarterback, Lee and I alternating as the receiver and defender. “Touchdown” was achieved by getting past the two maple trees; about 30 yards from our line of scrimmage. There was no referee and no pass interference. Most passes were caught with arms wrapped around your neck and shoulders, or about to be slammed to the ground. It was the kind of football brothers’ play — brutal, filled with scrapes, minor injuries and a lot of laughter. With Grandpa Tom and Grandma coming up from Illinois, we knew our traditions were sure to change and, in our opinion, not for the better.

When their car pulled in a few days before Thanksgiving, Grandpa Tom emerged, a short, stocky man wearing a plaid shirt and trousers held up by suspenders. He had a quick smile that concealed the intensity you might expect from a military man. But, in those few days before Thanksgiving dinner, he quickly took command, barking at us to sit up straight, keep our elbows off the table, instructing us to clear the table and do the dishes. He did this like the Navy man he had been — orders sprinkled with a few mild obscenities. That was not the norm for our house and when he was chided for swearing, he would say, “Oh, (blank), I am just trying to teach the boys a little manners.”

Thanksgiving Day finally arrived, with two more chairs at the table, the seven of us sat down with our hands folded; waiting for the prayer. But, Mom had another surprise for us that year; each person was to reflect on the last year and offer a few words of thanks. We went around the table, nothing special that I can recall, until we came to Grandpa Tom.

There was silence, seconds passed, his head down, until we finally lifted our eyes, saw tears cascading onto the empty plate in front of him. As a young man, I could not understand the tears, thinking something must be wrong. Struggling to find his voice, trying to control his emotions, he finally choked, “I am just so damn grateful to be here with all of you.”

That should be the end of the story, but it’s not. In the years that followed, I learned that Grandpa Tom had met my grandmother while in the hospital, sitting at the bed of his wife, who was terminally ill. Our widowed Grandma was the nurse assigned to Tom’s wife. In those difficult weeks, he had been so touched by her kindness, her spirit and her sense of humor that after his wife passed away, he sought her out and later they were married.

That Thanksgiving Day, more than any, lives in my memory, not for the food, but because of the one person at the table who was so filled with a spirit of thankfulness.

Now, I am old enough to have spent many Thanksgivings, some with many chairs around the table, but also those with only two chairs and a single candle. Looking back, while I am certain the turkey, the stuffing and the pie were delicious, it’s the faces and the stories I remember. It is also the faces and stories of those who are no longer with us that also make this the hardest time of year.

If I had it to do over again, I would listen better and I would share more. I would try to understand the events and times, good and the bad, which shaped the lives of those around the table.

Sure, there are those things each year that bring us joy, but perhaps Grandpa Tom had it right ... more than anything, we should be grateful to share a table and a meal with those we love.

Happy Thanksgiving.

— David Van Ginhoven is a resident of West Olive. Contact him at vanginhovend@yahoo.com.