For a few weeks in third grade, I cringed when it came time to pay for my lunch – Mom didn’t have enough money for us to pay for it.
I felt humiliated by getting free lunch. I had seen kids walk up to the lunch lady without handing her any change and I had looked down on them. Now I was one of those kids.
As I approached the cashier each day, I would dig into my pocket as if I were looking for change. When I got there, I would quickly put my fist across the counter, pretending that I was giving her money. Then I would sit down at the lunch table and let the shame simmer down, wondering if I had been seen.
People in my hometown of Petal, Mississippi, remember me as a likable kid who was going places. I remember feeling like I was one of the few poor kids who wore his cousins’ hand-me-downs. I felt ashamed when my single mom arrived at school programs without a husband.
There was one place outside of my home, however, where my lunchroom shame was suspended: Thanksgiving with my mom’s large, extended family in Arkansas. During those three days in Arkansas, I had everything I was missing at home.
My family members had three-bedroom, two-bath houses with chimneys, microwaves, and VCRs, which were my main measures of upper-middle-class wealth. In the absence of my dad, there were strong embraces from my grandfather and three uncles.
At that lunch table, there was no price to be paid for the feast set before us. There was no shame for the boy who suddenly felt proud to be related to those people – the kind of people who had the life he longed for.
I’m sure no one at Thanksgiving had any idea how tightly I was clinging to every moment with them. I was another kid having fun playing Double Dribble on my cousin’s Nintendo. But there was so much more going on. My family was lending me the dignity I longed for back home.
I wonder who might be sitting around your Thanksgiving table this year being blessed with more than turkey and pecan pie. What kid — young or old — is finding solace in that moment where they finally belong? You never know what’s going on in people’s minds and hearts around the Thanksgiving table, but it can be a sacred space.
Thanksgiving is a holiday where the gift is the presence of people who welcome you, whether you’re related to them or not. There’s no price to be paid, no expectation that gifts must be given. No matter how out-of-place some of us may feel the rest of the year, if we get Thanksgiving right, it’s an invitation to enjoy free lunch, to feel loved without feeling any shame.