I ate my Thanksgiving turkey in August this year. When I arrived at the farmhouse, Grandma was preparing all the fixings, whipping together a spread of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy that I could smell from the driveway. After eight months apart, our reunion began with a glimpse of her wide smile—the new one, her teeth a little too pearly and straight to pass as an original set.
Stretching onto her tiptoes, Grandma greeted me at the door with a kiss and a hug. Her hugs are longer than they used to be. Ever since I left Virginia to become an Oregon Duck, we've seen less of each other, a trend that is continuing this November. For the fourth time in five years, I'll spend Thanksgiving Day some 2,500 miles from the family farm where I learned how to throw a football—and take a hit—while chasing my cousins around the backyard and skirting the electric fence that kept Papa's cows off our stump-strewn playing field.
During those carefree days, I never imagined spending Thanksgiving anywhere else. The date was sacred, the one time a year when the entire clan would gather around Grandma's table. In my world, the holiday didn't exist without a fathers-versus-sons football game, or barrel-chested Uncle Doug cracking jokes about my scrawny frame. From the blessing before lunch (our family's festive meal) to the Cowboys game after it, our traditions seemed permanent, as unconditional as Grandma's love.
Over time, reality proved less romantic. I was 12 years old when my oldest cousin got married, pulling her between two holiday routines. A few years later, Papa's death created a new void, one that stung with every sight of his favorite recliner sitting empty in the den. We kept trying to make his vanilla pancakes, but they never tasted quite the same. Soon enough, even our football games fizzled out. Old knees and pulled hamstrings didn't care much about tradition.
By the time I finished high school, my sights were fixed on more distant horizons. When Oregon's track coach offered me my dream shot to run for the Ducks, I was ready to leave home. Grandma knew that, but she still threatened to stash me away in her gunnysack. Somehow I eluded her grasp.
This past August, when I returned to the farm as a recent college graduate, much was the same as it had always been. The rotary-dial phone still hung on the wall. The same jar of Hershey's Kisses sat in the den. The house looked the same; it only felt different. What had been a treasure trove to a young boy's eyes was now a museum, a catalog of distant memories.
Our conversation over lunch didn't stray far from those memories, shielding us from the difficult questions that come with addressing the future. At times, I slipped back into the role of impressionable grandson, hanging on every word of Grandma's story about the time I refused to eat her "dirty" potatoes, and laughing as she described some place as being so quiet "you could hear a mouse pee on cotton." Leaping from one tale to the next, Grandma seemed thankful to finally have company around the house. I felt my usual pang of guilt for not calling more often. I made my usual silent promise to do better.
In the kitchen after lunch, we stood with each other next to the magnet-covered refrigerator, gazing at the photographs of her nine smiling grandchildren. She pointed out a newspaper photo of me on the starting line at the Eugene Half Marathon. I could imagine her, on particularly quiet days, slipping into conversation with my likeness on the fridge. "Ben, run like the wind," she might say. "Run like the wind for me."
I bet she talks to Papa's photo, too. He's been gone five years now, and his face on the fridge can offer only so much comfort. On cold winter mornings or lazy summer afternoons, photos don't talk back. Not mine. Not Papa's. In our own ways, we've both slipped out of Grandma's life. He's not there to say good morning. I'm not there to celebrate Thanksgiving. In its irreverence for ritual, time can be cruel like that. It has been to Grandma. Time replaced the laughing grandchildren in her kitchen with smiling photos on the fridge. Time took away her husband, then gave her the years to miss him. Time drew her grandson to the opposite coast. Time kept him from coming back for Thanksgiving.
Where others might resent time, Grandma prays for more of it, explaining that she still has some boxes to check off her bucket list. In the face of inescapable change, she replaces old rituals with new ones. I'm going to remember that on Thanksgiving, when I start to yearn nostalgically for the old days. Grandma has kept going. She made me turkey in August. Next year, maybe I'll cook.
—By Ben DeJarnette
Ben DeJarnette is a first-year master's student in the UO School of Journalism and Communication. A native of Mechanicsville, Virginia, he is in his fifth year of running cross country as well as distance track & field events for the Ducks.