I found them in her dining room tucked into a lowboy drawer: a sandwich sized Ziploc bag of corn kernels. I looked around at the china hutch still full, her table shrunk small. She had passed away just a week before. She was red-haired spunky but always full of welcome. We had driven to Akron for her funeral. I choked out the eulogy and together Andrew and I had handed out the bread and the wine.
Now neither she nor grandpa were living there now, both had been moved to the nursing home five minutes down the road. She had always come out to the car to receive us like she had been waiting at the window, gathering people and bags in her arms and helping us to her door. The ranch house felt hollow. Full of stuff, empty of her. We wandered around smelling her perfume, running our hands over last winter’s wool coats. I took in my breath sharply as I found the peach blouse hung up in the basement like it had just been pressed for her to run down and throw it on. There was a black and white picture tucked into her top drawer, all my family standing on Crescent Beach smiling at her, Xavier was a tiny bundle folded in my arms just five weeks old. Slippers were parked beside the bed where she had slid them off before being driven to the nursing home. She kept falling. Alzheimer’s had stolen her life one week at a time.
I wandered back into the dining room. Grandpa didn’t want their cherry dining room furniture or the red and gold china he had carried home from Malaysia to go to strangers. The furniture was packed into a Uhaul for my house, the china wrapped for future Thanksgivings at Aaron’s. The mourning was fresh but we were all together and needed to work through grief in proximity. In the dining room we found the bag of kernels next to the brass snuffer. I squeezed the bag in my hands. Here were the hundreds of kernels gathered and handed out and then gathered again Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving.
This was the long, front room where we would pull the table out large, slide in the leaves, float out an ironed white tablecloth, and tuck lap-sized white napkins beside the plates. The turkey would be cut with the hum of the electric knife, covered with foil and slid back into the oven. Side dishes were covered and fought for space on the racks underneath. And then we would gather around the set table, three tiny corn kernels sitting on the center of each large plate. Just seeing them would make Uncle Chris groan, “Can’t we just do one kernel this year? The mashed potatoes are gonna get cold!” But, we all knew that when the stories came out, the thanksgivings of the year, his eyes would get as misty as anybody’s.
And this is how the tradition works:
Each person has three kernels of corn on their empty plate. As a small bowl is passed around the table from one family member to the next, one kernel of corn at a time is dropped in and we briefly share one thing we are thankful for from that year. The bowl makes its way around the table a full three times, corn kernels dropped in and clinking against the porcelain. The kids inevitably give thanks for their family, but they too are being warmed by the stories: “I’m thankful for my wife who carried me through this year’s job loss.” “I’m thankful for the gift of friendship we found in our new neighborhood.” The first pass, we share lightly. The second times we often try to find the words to honor those in the room and their hard work of loving. The third time around we often give thanks for the way God carried us through times of pain. We lift up the stories in one massive eucharisteo, hymns of thanks sung one at a time.
And this is when the stories of faith journeys usually came out. This is where we heard “the old old stories.” Grandpa’s thanks rose loud as the tears spilled down. He often told the story of when his parents became Jesus-followers and Scripture lovers, how God had remade his family inside the walls of the tiny white wooden church in the four stop town of New Haven, Ohio.
Our stones of remembrances were shrunk into kernels, but they still held weight. We turn them around in our hands, feel the white tips, the dimpled sides. Our Ebenezers. The feast had already begun.