Winter comes early in Nebraska. A fresh blanket of snow already covered everything that gray November day, unspoiled this time by the foot traffic of students hurrying to class. All was silent and empty as icy gusts of wind formed rows of dusty snow drifts, erasing the sidewalks that crisscrossed the lonely campus.
It was Thanksgiving, and all but a handful of students had gone home. But she stayed. Her home was on the West Coast, too far to get home and back for the extended weekend. And I stayed too, maybe to catch up on a class project, but my memory's a little fuzzy on the reason.
She lived off campus with her grandparents, but they had gone to spend the holiday with one of their children. She told me she and her best friend, another West Coast girl, would be preparing Thanksgiving dinner at the house, and there would be far more food than she and her friend could eat. It wasn't exactly an invitation, but close enough for me.
After spending the day in my room working on a paper I stepped out the side door of the dorm. The carillon hymns from the chapel tower told me it was 5 o'clock -- too early to be so dark. Mine were the first tracks in the snow around the residence hall since I was the only dorm dweller staying for the holiday. Those tracks would disappear before I returned that night.
I trudged toward her house, now doubting she had extended an invitation at all. I was prepared to make a quick exit if I perceived from her greeting that I had misinterpreted her words. I nearly turned back, but the only alternative I had for my holiday feast was popcorn back in my room. The promise of a meal prodded me forward.
But it was the hostess who had filled my thoughts all day. She filled my thoughts every day; she had since I first saw her one early September afternoon in the library.
I was a sophomore, she a senior who had returned to school for her final year after taking out a year to travel in Europe. My work study assignment had been switched that year, much to my disappointment, from grounds maintenance to the mending and marking workroom at the student library. The job was mind-numbing dull -- until the day she walked in with a stack of books in need of repair.
She worked in the library too. I was sitting at my work table applying labels to the spines of rebound books and no doubt trying to stay awake the day she came in. I stuttered incoherently when she asked me where to set the books. She smiled and I was instantly, completely, hopelessly, terminally smitten.
After she left I was embarrassed at how moronic I had sounded. But my job had suddenly become much more interesting.
One day the next week when I showed up to work there was a small box of English shortbread on my table. There was no note, and I didn't know whose it was, so I set it aside. Before long she brought back some books and, glancing my way, asked, "Don't you like shortbread?" It was from her. It was for me. I could barely comprehend it.
After that, when I came to work I knew when she was working because there was a caramel sucker or chocolate chip cookies or an apple awaiting me. I could barely thank her because she still turned me into a stammering fool every time I was near her.
So there's no telling what I had told her when she casually mentioned there would be more than enough food that Thanksgiving. How embarrassing it would be if I showed up unexpected. It would be easier to explain later why I hadn't come than to show up unexpected.
I hesitated when I reached for the doorbell and dropped my hand to my side. Just as I started to leave the door opened. Her smile was as warm as the kitchen where the turkey was just coming out of the oven. Before I could say much of anything I found myself in the kitchen, wearing an apron, carving a turkey.
Once it was all on the table, we sat around the oblong table and took each other's hands. She asked me to give thanks. The list of blessings for which I gave thanks was long, but I didn't mention the one most on my mind -- the tiny hand I held tightly in mine. I think I remember now why I didn't go home that year.
I sometimes think she allowed me to share her Thanksgiving that cold Nebraska day only because she felt sorry for me, all alone on a holiday. But I was sure thankful she did. And I'm glad she's allowing me to share this Thanksgiving with her again -- for the 25th time.