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The Thankful-Tree

Lydia Olsen
Class of 2016

(11/2015) "BEEP!" "BEEP!" Susanaís alarm clock rang loudly. She rolled over and hit it forcefully as she groaned. The blinds on her window were open, but it was too early for any sunlight to shine through. She took a deep breath knowing that it was going to be a hectic day. The next moment, she was out of bed and starting her morning.

She tiptoed so she didnít wake anyone as she inched down the hall. She came to the stairs and did her best not to make a sound. The third step couldnít help but let out a creak. She paused, hoping no one heard it, and then continued into the kitchen.

"First things first," she thought to herself as she dumped coffee grinds into the filter and started the pot. Then she was off grabbing things out of the kitchen, the pantry, the dining room, and nearly everywhere else that had become a hub for all things "Thanksgiving."

Luckily, they had student volunteers visit earlier in the week that had helped them sort their donations. This made things a lot easier when she began cooking. She took the turkeys that had been jammed-packed into the fridge out and preheated the oven. She glazed them as best as she knew how and threw on some salt and pepper. Two turkeys were shoved into her oven to the best of her ability.

Before long, she heard a knock on the door. Susana opened it into the darkness that was still morning. There stood Maggie, a woman in her mid 50s, with an aluminum tray in her hands. "Good morning," she said, eagerly as she set the tray down and gave Susana a big hug. "Iím already feeling stressed!" Susana replied. "Oh, nonsense," said Maggie, "This is all going to turn out perfectly!"

Before long, everyone had woken up in the house and they were all downstairs. This operation required all hands on deck to make it a success. The five adults worked on the cooking while the three teenagers helped to decorate the house, clean up the living areas, and assist the four children with the most important task of all; preparing for the thankful-tree.

The arrangement was not of your "average" family, but somehow they made it all work. It started off with Susana and her husband Mark. They were high school sweethearts who went on to get married. At the time, their work required them both to constantly be in and around the city so they decided to make it their home. They bought a small townhouse and were doing well.

When Mark got sick, one thing lead to a million others and the medical bills started adding up quickly. Soon enough, they had lost nearly all their savings and werenít left with much of anything. Mark had to leave his job and Susana had to start working only part time to take care of him. It was in this time that the couple found time to gain a new perspective. They started to notice the people experiencing homelessness around their neighborhood and they felt called to help.

The first to come to the house was Mary and her son Phillip. Susana invited them to live with her and Mark for a little while to give them a place to rest. They moved in and somehow it just worked. Mary was pleased that Phillip would be able to stay at the same school for a while, and grateful to not be forced onto the streets. Susana was grateful to have help around the house and with taking care of Mark, who loved the company. They decided to make the arrangement permanent. Susana and Mary found that they loved opening up their home and in doing so, it opened up both their hearts and minds. They decided to extend the offer again and their family continued to grow with other individuals in need of a family and a home.

For the family, Thanksgiving was an important day. It was an opportunity to take time to express your gratitude and they all had a lot to be grateful for. A couple years back when Phillip was eight, he asked Susana about this holiday with great confusion. It wasnít something that he had previously experienced celebrating in the traditional ways.

"But what about the people who donít have food?" he asked, concerned. This got Susana thinking and was the beginning of their traditional Thanksgiving open house. Each year, the family opened their doors to the public for dinner. They relied on donations that they collected throughout the months leading up to November. Then they worked diligently to prepare everything and make it a special holiday. The first year they accommodated roughly 20 additional guests and the numbers have only grown since then. Their doors were open to anyone, no matter their situation. There was one requirement thoughÖthey had to put a leaf on the thankful-tree.

The thankful-tree was started by a couple of the children as a way to share all of the things we are thankful for. The children would cut out leaves and color them on one side and then leave the other side blank. At the top of each leave was a piece of string. They would search outside for any branches and tape them together and put them in a vase to make a "tree." The idea was to have everyone write or draw on a leave about what you are thankful for and then hang it onto the branches. By the end of the night, the branches were always overflowing.

The day had flown by and it was nearly suppertime. The family was working in many different directions. The adults hung back in the kitchen doing final preparations while the teens and children greeted the guests and chatted. Before long they were all gathered together and Susana came out of the kitchen to address the nearly 70 people.

"Thank you all so much for being here," Susana started, "Thanksgiving is a day that helps to remind us of the people and things that are really important in life. It gives us a time to gather together as one community and one family. It is a time for shared laughs, love, stories, experiences, and of course food. Today is a day I look forward to every year because it brings so many beautiful people into my life and gives us all a chance to be present to each other and build relationships. As many of you know, there isnít any fee or anything but we do request that each of you, if you are able, write on a leaf that the children have cut out about what you are thankful for and hang it up. We like to do this as a visual representation of all of our gratitude. Again, I am so happy to have you all here and to share this holiday with such great company. Enjoy!"

Soon enough they were all digging into the food and having endless conversations with each other. The home had become a home for all during this meaningful holiday. After hours of enjoyment, the night ended and the leftovers were distributed. The family was exhausted and headed to bed after helping to clean up. Susana hung back in the kitchen and said goodbye to Maggie. Then she heard feet on the stairs and Phillip turned the corner.

"Aunt Susana," he said. "I donít think I see any leaves on thankful-tree with your handwriting. Donít forget!" Susana laughed and walked over to get started. "This leaf isnít big enough for all the things I am grateful for!" Susana shouted to Phillip as he headed back upstairs. Susana took a deep breath and began to write.

Read other articles by Lydia Olsen