She’s bagging my Monday morning groceries as Maggie hops up and down in front of the candy display, and she doesn’t even chuckle at the sight of those princess pajamas sticking out from beneath my daughter’s fuzzy pink coat.
On any other Monday morning, she would have.
On a different Monday morning, one that didn’t happen to be three days before Thanksgiving, she’d have stopped scanning the loaf of bread and let loose a bubbly laugh as she delighted in the antics of my big-personalitied daughter.
“Mama! Mama! Look at me! I’m balancing on just one foot!” Maggie springs happy like a human pogo stick and adds a circular twirl to her jumping. “I’m a real live dancing girl, Mama. Do you see me? Do you see me? Can you believe it? I’m just using one toe, Mama. Only one toe. Isn’t it amazing? Don’t you think I’m like a famous girl? A famous bouncing ballerina!” Maggie pauses her one-toed-bouncing to blow me some kisses, the dramatic swoop of her hand toppling a bag of Skittles right off candy row.
The man in the wool overcoat behind us chuckles quietly. But the gray-haired cashier who normally beams at children doesn’t slip a grin. Those eyes that usually sparkle don’t even lift from the cash register to meet my gaze.
My girl bounds past me and plants herself within reach of her favorite cashier . “I’m gonna help you!” Maggie declares as she tries to transfer a towering sack of toilet tissue from the check-out station to the cart parked at the aisle’s end. I take three steps toward the cart, and place three gallons of milk in the unused front seat before my daughter can drop them.
Maggie pirouettes with a bag of cereal in her hands. “Look! The Cheerios are dancing with the Fruit Loops!” she bellows, the white sack spinning over her head like a slingshot.
I poise myself to catch the sure-to-fly-away cereal boxes and wait for the ruddy-faced cashier to catch my eye and repeat her standard line—Honey, don’t even blink; ’cause if ya close your pretty blue eyes for just a minute, that baby girl of yours’ll just grow up. And before you know it, you’ll be an old grandma like me.
She’s been telling me that since Maggie was a baby, sharing her wisdom in the check-out lane of our small town Walmart for as long as I can remember. And I love her for that. I love the way she brightens my dreaded grocery-runs with a sweet smile and a snippet of grandmotherly advice. I love the way she casts a compassionate grin rather than a scornful gaze when my exuberant girl knocks over the bubblegum display while reaching for that pink-foiled package of Trident that is placed out of a four-year-old’s reach. I love the way she chats with me like I’m the only one in the store even when the snaking line behind me is filled with cranky customers.
But today, my best-loved checker keeps her eyes fixed on the cash register until she totals my charge. Then she finally looks at me and announces my due. I swipe my credit card and try to make conversation with her before she drops her head again. “How are you today?” I ask, holding her gaze
“Oh, I’m alright, I guess,” she replies, solemn-faced and quiet.
“Are you getting ready for Thanksgiving?” I beam her a grin in hopes that it might coax her weathered pink lips to curve upward, too.
“No,” she says slowly, “I don’t get to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. I mean, I don’t get to join my family for dinner. I’ve gotta be here….” She sweeps her hand across the check-out lane and shakes her head in disbelief.
I poise the gray stylus in my hand and squiggle my signature on the plastic screen of the credit card machine. “I’m so sorry,” I say and reach to pat her hand so she knows that I mean it.
“Yeah,” she acknowledges my words with a sigh, “We never had to work on Thanksgiving day in the old store. It was actually a respected holiday back then.” I nod, both of us remembering when our hometown Walmart didn’t bear the name Super before it’s title. Both of us remembering when Black Friday was a shopping day contained to Friday only.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, my response echoing hollow and trite.
She shrugs her shoulders in a gesture of helpless surrender. “My sister said she’d leave a plate of turkey in my apartment. Just drop it by once she cleans up the dishes and stuff, so I can have a a bit of Thanksgiving dinner when I get home…” Her voice trails off, faint and sad. And then she looks right at me, the laugh lines around her eyes sagging rather than sparkling. “But it’s not about the turkey. You know?”
My stomach lurches as those tinny Christmas tunes crackle from unseen speakers. “I know,” I say with a definitive nod. “I know.” I study her tired eyes, then glance at the bright and brassy ads plastered all over the walls and the end-racks, the price-tags screaming from the shelves and the mid-aisle displays, and I feel the weight of the season pressing in, bearing down in a back-breaking flurry of buying and bustling and boxing.
How did a day set aside for the priceless act of giving thanks turn into just another day to bag a bargain?
I hold her gaze just a moment longer before the man in the wool overcoat takes my place at the cash register, and I feel tears welling in my eyes.
And that’s when I realize why Thanksgiving matters so much–why we, who celebrate the Christ in Christmas, desperately need this little holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.
We don’t need Thanksgiving because we need stomachs filled with turkey or tables graced with pumpkin pie.
We need Thanksgiving because we need souls emptied of ourselves, souls graced with the peace that comes from praise.
In the words of a wise Walmart cashier: It’s not about the turkey, you know?
Thanksgiving isn’t about carving a savory bird. It’s about carving out a place for a Savior, about anchoring our souls to something that doesn’t change with the latest sale.
Anne Voskamp says it best in her beautiful new book-“The heart that makes time and space for Him to come will be a glorious place. A place of sheer, radiant defiance in the face of a world careening mad and stressed…”
During a season that incites rush and frenzy, Thanksgiving is an invitation to pause, to slow our feet and lift our eyes.
Because anyone who takes time to count her gifts, anyone who pauses to name the simple graces that adorn her life, knows this marvelous secret of gratitude–We can’t acknowledge our gifts without thinking about the Giver.
That finger-painted masterpiece hanging on my fridge? It makes me think of my daughter who smeared those rainbow lines across the page. The wedding ring that sparkles on the fourth finger of my left hand? It reminds me of the man who claimed my heart back when we were seventeen years old. And so it is with every gift from God’s hand…
The sunbeams waltzing through the window? The stars dangling from the velvet sky? Those lungs that will breathe in more than 11,000 liters of air today? That child curled up in a warm ball of soft skin on your lap?
They are all presents to remind you of His presence; gifts to shift your gaze from the haphazard scurry of this world to the heart of a lavish Giver.
Thanksgiving isn’t about making shopping lists and landing the big deal.
Thanksgiving is about making room for the Giver who became the Gift one silent night in Bethlehem. And that’s the big deal.
Praise prepares our hearts for the miracle of Christmas. Not for gifts wrapped in shiny paper or sparkling lights strung on lovely trees, but for the Son of God wrapped in wrinkled flesh, the Lamb of God hung on Calvary’s tree in our place.
If we refuse to rush right by it.
Maggie begins pushing our loaded cart toward the exit doors and then she turns to wave adieu to our favorite cashier. “Bye! Bye!” she hollers, her mouth full of sticky pink bubblegum. “Happy Monday! Happy Thanksgiving! Merry Christmas! ” My littlest girl waggles her hands like a cheerleader and hollers the festive farewell over her shoulder.
The cashier returns my daughter’s wave and finally casts a slight smile her way. Maggie pushes our cart out the door and beckons me to follow.
I gather up my purse and turn to catch up with my girl before she rolls our wares into the busy parking lot. And as I bustle out the door, I race right beneath the brassy blue banner that promises Save Money. Live Better.
Then, in my mind, I rewrite that familiar slogan and lift my eyes past those bulging gray clouds to the endless sky above: Give thanks. And really live.