Day 114: A Thanksgiving toast from Kwajalein

As much as I try to remind my kids that Thanksgiving is a time to practice gratitude, for Brad at least, Thanksgiving Day is all about the mashed potatoes. For weeks, he’s been checking in with me:

“Mom, we’ll have mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, right?”

“We’re going to the dining hall, bud. I’m sure they’ll have mashed potatoes.”

“There’ll be gravy, too?”

“I mean, I can’t promise, but I’m pretty sure there’ll be gravy.”

“Good. I’m going to have a whole plate of mashed potatoes with gravy.”

Yesterday morning (Thanksgiving in Time Zone One), when I knocked on his door to ask him to get cleaned up so we could head to the dining hall for Thanksgiving dinner, I found him showered, dressed in his best clothes and ready to go. “Is it time to go yet?” he asked. Clearly, I don’t feed him enough mashed potatoes.

We were trying to time our bike ride to the dining hall just right. For the first time since he was a company commander in Texas 13 years ago, Jake was dressed in his blues, serving turkey. We were hoping to get our turkey from him about the time he’d be finishing up so we could all feast together.

A Thanksgiving feast, dish by dish

 It was my first time inside the dining hall facility – the Captain Louis S. Zamperini Cafeteria, named for the World War II airman and U.S. Olympic runner featured in the book and movie Unbroken. I paid at the register and immediately began to recognize other faces around the hall: some of Brad’s and Nora’s classmates and their families, fellow teachers, and Jake behind the cafeteria line, waving a set of tongs at us.

As I gathered trays, plates, and silverware for the three of us, one friend walked up and said, “Saw your husband in the line. He’s really enthusiastic about serving turkey!” I laughed, and Brad pulled my arm to get us to the food faster.

The cafeteria has two lines, but we (of course) chose the line manned by uniformed Army officers. A row of crisp white shirts, shining pins and colorful ribbons.

First stop: turkey and sweet potatoes with marshmallows from Jake. Second stop: mashed potatoes, gravy and cornbread stuffing. Next: green bean casserole and glazed carrots. Short break for a roll basket. Roast beef carving station. Ham slices. Shrimp cocktail then sauces.

Brad’s face says: This plate full of potatoes is exactly what I wanted.

I was busy helping Nora choose what she wanted for her plate, so I didn’t pay much attention to what Brad asked for in the line. He chose our seats, led us to a table near the windows and plunked his tray down. He wasn’t joking. A full plate of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy lay before him with a tiny piece of turkey nearly buried under the mound.

How Thanksgiving dinner should be

After filling our glasses at the drink station (pink lemonade and water), we made our way back to our table where Jake joined us with his own pile of Thanksgiving yumminess.

“Mom,” Brad elbowed me. “Now this is Thanksgiving!”

“What do you mean?”

“This is exactly how Thanksgiving dinner should be. Lots of people, really noisy, everyone happy.”

“How’re your potatoes?”

“Heavenly,” he said, with an exaggerated skyward stare.

Post-Thanksgiving feast, a satisfied Brad is wearing a smirk and sporting a belly full of mashed potatoes.

A Thanksgiving toast

Savoring my last perfect bites of cranberry sauce, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy (all together, sharing one spoon), I watched a group of friends meet at a long table next to ours. They filled their plates in the cafeteria line and returned to their seats, sharing drinks they brought from home and exchanging stories from past Thanksgivings.

One gentleman cleared his throat. “Ah-hem.” Too quiet. “Ah-hem, everyone,” he repeated. “I’d like to make a toast.”

Everyone at the table raised a cup or glass.

“To friends well met, to friends well made, to friends we’ll miss,” he said, voice breaking a little on the last phrase.

This man and his wife are well-known on the island. They’ve been here for decades, and they operate a shop in the downtown area that imports beautiful and eclectic items from places like Thailand and Bali. They’re retiring, which on this island means they will have to move somewhere else to build a new life, leaving behind lifelong friends – nearly family after so many years. These friends they’ve made will certainly be missed.

Kwaj Thanksgiving at the beach: it’s all about the hats.

After stuffing ourselves with turkey, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and pie in the dining hall, we spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach. Sitting in my beach chair, sand between my toes and salt on my lips, I had some thinking time. I considered my own friends well met and the friends and family I miss on a holiday that is characterized, as Brad pointed out, by a large and loud gathering and a lot of mashed potatoes.

Over the last 15 years, Jake and I have celebrated Thanksgiving with friends and occasionally family all over the country. From each year, small moments stick in my mind: Rachel Ray’s smashed sweet potatoes in Killeen, Texas. Our first time hosting a huge family dinner at Thanksgiving in Rock Island, Illinois. Gravy pudding and the best cranberry sauce I’ve ever had in Monterey, California. Delicious elk at a Virginia hunting cabin. Apple pie and cinnamon whiskey in Huntsville, Alabama.

And from each of those moments comes a flood of happy, noisy memories: my brother Jarod driving to Texas so I wouldn’t be alone on Thanksgiving while Jake was deployed. My friend Krista letting us borrow her family to have a big Thanksgiving dinner. All of my family – mom, dad, brother, sister, brother-in-law, niece – gathered around a wobbly table in our Rock Island living room, me with baby Brad the size of a little fist in my womb. Two-year-old Brad finding his love for mashed potatoes and gravy at Courtney’s Monterey table among some of the greatest friendships I’ve ever made. Olivia and three-year-old Nora playing in the Virginia mud in their best dresses. My childhood best friend and her beloved wife and daughter gathered in my warm Alabama kitchen.

So, ah-hem. Ah-hem, I’d like to make a toast:

To family well enjoyed. To friends well made. To loud, happy Thanksgivings well celebrated wherever you are.