Mike Ragland -Cotton in my Blood

Mike Ragland, Guest Columnist

I saw where the president of my Calhoun Area Writers club posted three prompts for our upcoming November meeting. One was called the Thanksgiving empty chair. It intrigued me. Then a few days later, at a Rome Area Writers meeting, I heard Paul Moses read his version of that prompt. It was very good. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I posted on Facebook the question of, “What does an ‘empty chair at Thanksgiving’ mean to you?” And as expected I got all kind of answers. From a loved one who has passed away, to somebody is running late and everywhere you can imagine in between. All are correct. To each I guess it means different things.

Mill village kids had a routine in their life and when a holiday rolled around, it was big news. Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house on Park Street was an affair. The buildup the last few days was so intense, we could hardly wait. My mother had two sisters and two brothers; they would all be at the “house” on Thanksgiving with all my cousins. What a day. While the grownups cooked and got dinner ready, we ran and played.

Dinner was something to behold. My grandmother started cooking early, and her girls all joined in to help. They were just getting in the way was what she said. We always had family members from some of the in-laws show up, too. It didn’t matter, it was a festive day and all were welcome.

There would be enough folks to have three tables. I mean my grandmother’s big table, filled up with new folks and family members three times. And those of you that did likewise can remember where the kids table was. Yep, it was after all the adults.

My Aunt Sammie’s husband Lamar was our go-to guy for saying grace, and to ask the blessing over the upcoming feast. And another thing about Lamar was that guy could eat. He started slow and never broke his rhythm. He would last through at least two tables. Later my Cousin Joe challenged him for his title, but seemed to always come up short.

Then in 1961, my mother passed away at 42 years old and our first empty chair showed up. Next, I guess, was me. I was home on leave in November of 1963. I didn’t arrive till around the 19th or 20th and had two weeks before reporting to my ship. I had just graduated from submarine school, and was on the way to Key West. Two days later JFK was assassinated and I got orders that afternoon canceling my leave. I was told to report immediately.

“Pack your bags, sailor, you’re going to Cuba.”

It didn’t say that, but I could read between the lines, and I was correct. Gitmo was a strange place at that time in history, but that’s another story.

Two years later my Uncle Lamar passed away, then my Uncle Ottis later, followed by my grandmother. Cousin Kenny Green was in the Army, and he missed a few, then he was killed in an automobile accident in 1983. There were lots of empty chairs now.

I got married into an even bigger family than I had. It was the same traditions.

As a patrol officer I had to work a lot of those Thanksgiving days. But I was able to check out for dinner at my mother-in-law’s house sometime during the day. My brother-in-law, Charles Evans, was a firefighter and his wife fixed him a plate and took it to the fire hall where he was stationed when he had to work on family-gathering holidays. But in my wife’s family, just like mine, time began to have its affect on the members attending our Thanksgiving celebration.

Starting with her sister Dot in 1978, it has been a steady drum roll of saints leaving for the big dinner table in the sky.

I think on my Facebook post someone replied “Memories” was what the empty chair stood for, and I have to agree. Those time-honored memories are fresh in my mind on holidays, especially Thanksgiving.

I think the first one without a spouse, parent or child must be the hardest to cope with. It never gets easy, but time has a way of softening the blow, at least a little.

We all grew up and had our own families, and many started their own traditions. Somehow we turned into the grandmothers and grandfathers of our childhood.

I saw a post where a writer named Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Now, ain’t that the truth.

In our house, Martha and I have passed our Thanksgiving meal-preparing days and will have dinner with our daughter. It’s her time and she’s good at it.

Now, we haven’t forgotten everything. We will prepare a few items for the church Thanksgiving lunch, which I always look forward to.

One of my Facebook posts said the empty chair stood for public safety personnel that were at work so we could eat. Also the military personnel around the globe protecting our way of life that we may have this time together. And then there are the homeless on the streets who have no family. Please remember all of our shelters and community dinners for those in need. They, too, have memories.

I guess it comes down to what James says, “Life is but a vapor, a flickering flame of a candle.” But think about it. There’s an empty chair waiting for us believers. And soon we’ll trade in our chairs and eat at the King’s table, seated in a brand new one. I wonder if we’ll be at the third table again.

Mike Ragland is a former Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Living with Lucy.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com.