The Thanksgiving visitor
By Judy Rose
Alma Peterson stood at the kitchen sink of her home on Fords Corner Road cleaning the Thanksgiving turkey that had been donated by the church she and her family regularly attended. Watching through the frost-glazed window, she occasionally waved and smiled at her children as they played in the back yard, their warm breath mixing with the cold November air to form small clouds of steam. A light dusting of powdery snow had fallen the night before and was swirling in the wind making tiny snow funnels that danced across the frozen ground.
"A Thanksgiving snow; not enough to bother you, but a calling card for winter," Alma's mother Iona used to say.
1943 had not been a good year for the Peterson family; Andrew Peterson, seriously injured in a rock fall at Heisley Mine, had not drawn a paycheck for six months, and now the Nanty Glo bank was threatening to foreclose on their small farm. Alma's mother had passed away in September of a sudden illness leading to pneumonia. Their meager savings account had long since been depleted, and for the first time in their twelve years of married life, Andrew and Alma needed charity to feed themselves and their children. As she gazed out the window, Alma's mind drifted to the unhappy events of the past year. Not much to be thankful for this year, she thought; Andy unable to work, bills piling up, and Mama gone so suddenly.... They say the good Lord won't give you more than you can bear, but our burden sure is getting heavy . I'm in a hurry for this year to be over, but dreading the slim Christmas we'll be having.
The soft tap-tap-tap at the kitchen door startled Alma out of her depressing train of thought. Who can that be? she wondered. Opening the door just wide enough to peek out and to not let the cold air in, she was relieved to see that it wasn't a bill collector; but to her amazement and slight alarm, she saw an elderly black man standing on the porch. Zachary and Rachael were behind him, staring wide-eyed at a person the likes of which they had only heard about. Except for the occasional wanderer, people of the Negro race were seldom seen in Jackson Township, and none lived there. Alma and Andrew Peterson themselves had seen them only on rare shopping trips to Johnstown. Alma hustled Rachael and Zachary into the warmness of the kitchen, leaving the old Negro to stand on the porch.
"Are you lost, Mister?" Alma asked.
"No Ma'm, I ain't lost, I's jus' passin' through," he said. The old gent had the collar of his worn overcoat pulled up against his face as protection from the cold air. A faded green scarf was wrapped around his head, his black trousers and shoes were tattered and worn. The sight of the old man brought to mind a phrase her mother used to recite when she would see or hear of someone less fortunate than herself:There, but for the grace of God, go I. Poor old soul, she thought, hardly dressed for such a cold blustery day.
Alma eyed the stranger suspiciously. "Well, if you aren't lost, what are you doing knocking on our door..this house is a hundred yards from the road. What do you want?"
"Ma'm, could you spare a hungry traveler some food?" he said. "I don't want much...I ain't had nothin' to eat for goin' on two days now. I sure is hungry and I be willin' to do some chores as a way of payin' for your kindness." Alma pictured her own nearly bare larder as she prepared to send the stranger on his way.
"We have barely enough for ourselves, I can't give..." she started to explain, but was interrupted by the laments of Zachary and his sister. "Please, Ma-ma, can we give him some food?" asked eight-year-old Zachary. "He looks awful cold and hungry," his blue eyes pleading up at his mother.
"Please say yes, Ma-ma...please say yes...he looks like a Granpa," chimed little red-haired Rachael.
"Hush...hush you two!" their mother said impatiently as she looked into the old man's sad dark eyes. How humiliating for him, she thought, needing charity from strangers. I too know that humiliation. Reluctant to give away what little extra food she had but fearing to appear heartless and cruel before her children, Alma decided to offer the old man what little she could spare. "I don't have much," she said, "a little leftover soup and some day-old bread...but you're needin' it more than us, so you're welcome to it."
Not wanting to invite the stranger into her home but kind enough not to leave him in the cold, she motioned him off the porch. "Get on over to the barn, it's a little warmer there and you'll be out of the wind. I'll send my husband with the food." The old man extended his black hand toward her as a gesture of thanks, and she noticed the knurled bony fingers and the calloused skin. She knew this dark-skinned man was no stranger to hard work. She would have him chop kindling wood as soon as he had eaten. "My husband is not well," she said. "I could use some kindling for the cook stove."
"I'd be pleased M'am," he said as he turned and headed toward the barn. "By the way, my name is Alma Peterson, and yours?" she called after him.
"My name is Gabe Ma'm; jus' call me Gabe," he replied as he walked away. As she watched the old man walk to the barn, Alma Peterson knew in her heart that she and her family had nothing to fear from this soft-spoken vagabond.
As Alma closed the door and turned around she ran smack into her husband Andrew. "Alma, my girl, you are a woman with a soft heart," he said laughing. "Get the food ready and I'll take it to the barn...poor old guy, looks like he's had some tough goin' and looks harmless enough. I'll take him a few blankets and tell him he can sleep in the barn tonight...and better yet, I'll ask him to stay for dinner tomorrow. We don't have much, but the good Lord has given us a good home, a healthy family, and Christian hearts; we'll make him part of our family for Thanksgiving Day at least, and share what we have."
Alma had been up since dawn making preparations for dinner. The house was filled with the aroma of roasting turkey, freshly baked bread, pumpkin pie, and perking coffee. Gabe had been true to his word; the lean-to was stacked with enough kindling to last for at least a week. He had entertained Zachary and Rachael with tales of his wanderings and all the places he had seen, as he chopped and stacked the wood.
Alma had set the dining room table with her mother's crocheted white lace tablecloth and antique blue willow china, as was her mother's custom when company was coming for dinner. Alma had placed a lone white taper in the center of the table. She felt at peace with the world as the sounds of family emanated from the parlor; Zachary and Rachael giggled over a game of checkers while Andrew and Gabe talked of rabbit hunting and farming. Life was good, for today at least.
"Dinner's ready," Alma called from the dining room, and as the afternoon faded to purple twilight, the Peterson family and the black man known as Gabe took their places around the holiday table. As Alma lit the lone white candle, Andrew said, "Gabe, I usually say the blessing at our meals, but we have a tradition in this house; when we have a guest at our table, I pass the honor on to our guest. So will you please say the blessing?"
"I'd be honored, Andrew," said Gabe. The Peterson family and their elderly guest joined hands and bowed their heads while Gabe began to pray: "Our heavenly Father, I ask that you hear my humble prayer. We thank you for your everlasting love and for your blessed son Jesus. We thank you for the healin' of Andrew's injuries. I thank you for leadin' me to this kind family so full of Christian love. Lord, we thank you for this food, please bless it to our needs, and us to your service. Amen."
The fellowship lasted on into the night, Gabe enchanting the family with tales of his days on the road and Andrew telling stories of the coal mines. Zachary and Rachael, tired and sleepy from the Thanksgiving festivities, had long since been put to bed, and soon the adults, too, wished each other good night. "I'll be movin' on in the mornin', Andrew. You folks have been mighty kind to this ol' soul," Gabe said as he left for his bed of hay in the barn.
Thanksgiving had become a pleasant memory two weeks before Christmas when Ben Wilson from the Miners Bank bank knocked on the Petersons' door. "Let him in, Alma; we knew this was coming," Andrew said. What the Petersons dreaded most and had prayed so hard to avoid seemed at last to be upon them.
"Mornin' folks," Ben said as he entered the kitchen. "Andrew, Alma, I have some good news for you. An old black man named Gabriel stopped in at the bank about a week ago and handed over enough money to pay your mortgage up to date and a few months ahead. He spoke of the kindness you folks had shown him a little while back."
Gabriel? Gabe's real name was Gabriel?..like God's messenger from heaven? Alma thought.
"Strange situation," Ben added, "He sure didn't look like someone who would have any money, wearing tattered old clothes and run-down shoes. I asked how he came to have so much cash. All he said was, 'Mr. Wilson, the Lord will provide and if you've a mind, you might be lookin' in the good book at Matthew, chapter 25, verses 35 through 40. You'll be findin' the answers to your questions in that holy writ.'"
Jackson Township native Judy (Burkhart) Rose, now a Revloc resident, is a registered nurse, works part-time at Al's Pizza in Nanty Glo, and is the associate editor of the Home Page, where her weekly feature, Where Are They Now, appears each Monday.
Sent by Sallie Covolo
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