with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Thanksgiving Quietly

I was so startled when my dad asked me what our plans were for Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago. Thanksgiving? There is no Thanksgiving in Israel. In fact, there is no Thanksgiving outside of the United States, and even that holiday hasn’t been going on there for all that long, though the myth around it tells the story of it being a four or five hundred year tradition. Sorry folks, maybe a hundred years, and it was supposed to be a “family” dinner and not a “hurry-up and eat so we can watch football all day and sleep” holiday. But it does bring people together. Brent’s parents asked USA, too, what our plans were. Just another day of working and sleeping, nothing different here. For them, it’s a jammed packed weekend with tons of family get-togethers, traveling to and/or from Tulsa to Dallas and back, all to see family and eat a ton of food. They only watch a little football. My mom, when I reached her in Lisbon, also asked what we were going to do. She told me that she was going down to our “adopted family” friend, Dona, in Seattle for their traditional Thanksgiving dinner. But us? Nada.

I had heard Brent mention an American engineer just arrived here temporarily to work on the current airplane project, and how he arrived without family, leaving them behind. So I thought this might be a chance to actually do something good for someone, make him feel a little more welcome, and find an excuse to DO SOMETHING for Thanksgiving. So he accepted the invitation and then I thought – who else?

Luckily, Maureen practically invited herself, god love her for that, and I thought of a wonderful couple we have enjoyed spending time with, Motie and Marlene, and luckily they also accepted. I hadn’t seen or talked to them in ages, since before we left for the war, but we’ve been in semi-contact by email. They were delighted. Now, I just hoped I could hold up my end of the bargain.

I made a simple plan for the food, calling on recent successes. I do have to admit that I’m getting better at this cooking business. Certainly I’m getting more relaxed about it and the anxiety is fairly low on the scale compared to the panic attacks of the past. Having cooked Ruth’s Osso Bucco recipe a couple times with great success, I thought that would be a good replacement for the turkey. The pumpkin raisin bars with cream cheese frosting were a must, of course, since I’ve mastered those. And I just needed some kind of salad and vegetable. Hmmm.

I sat on the couch and debated over the recipe books. I have collected quite a few delightful cook books, but nothing was popping out at me. Enthusiasm is still a reach for me. I’m moving about, still acting and doing fine, but inside my heart is still breaking. Walking back from the beach on Sunday, after a glorious hour spent sitting in plastic chairs (instead of our hard walk towards Jaffa and back) at the edge of the sea, our bare feet splishing in the glass polished surf, feeling completely wealthy and spoiled with the world, Maureen and I decided to head home, her to rest her tired and sick body and me to work.

Only a couple blocks from the beach, a cat sleeping atop a cement wall at my eye level caught my eye. It’s fur was tiger stripes, but the most impressive shade of golden orange, making him or her glow in the morning light. As I walked towards it, it’s eyes opened to reveal blank holes, the oh-so familiar light pink wall of the inner eye. I gasped and the cat sat up. Maureen also gasped slightly, understanding what was happening. I moved slowly and put out my hand. In Israel, the majority of cats are feral and a hand means food or pain, so I knew this cat was feral when he got a whiff of my hand and backed off. He moved away with complete confidence through the fence and bushes to the yard even with the top of the fence. He paused, “looking” at USA, an expression so familiar and dear to my heart, and then moved off to the front entrance of the house, hidden behind the buses, his front paw lifting routine to check the way with ease also familiar. I just stood there, pain and joy flooding my soul. I miss Dahni so very much. We were so closely entwined every day of his life. My greatest fear was for him getting out among the wild cats and being attacked and unable to survive, yet here was a feral cat that seems to have survived the loss of both of his eyes without any form of healing surgery, and he was at least a year or two older than Dahni would be and he was surviving just fine. Happy and healthy. While I can’t imagine having released Dahni to the wild, it does give me confidence to know that he could have survived. He was such a fighter, every minute of his life. But it made me miss him again and again.

Maureen stood by me, silent in the moment, understanding the pain. She has suffered greater losses than I can even imagine in her life, so she has a special empathy that I really admire and she has helped me so much to deal with all of this, in her own way. I closed my eyes for a second and grabbed a hold of all the feelings that wanted to burst forth, tucked them deep down and turned to continue down the street, returning to our conversation as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t lose it on the street. I has been six weeks since I lost my little fuzzy friend and it was time to return to life and not tears. Maureen kept up her side of the conversation, understanding completely. But when I got to the quiet of my home, those eyes haunted me for two days, at odd moments during the day and constantly in the night. I couldn’t sleep for more than an hour without seeing those eyes and waking up, sliding my legs around looking for the familiar pressure of warm cat against me.

Lost in more tears, I put away the cook books, deciding on simple grilled vegetables and the mango tomato salad with oil and vinegar and curry and crushed basil dressing to complete the meal, and got on with the plans of the day. The night before the meal, I talked to Maureen on the phone to go over my preparations and admitted my fears.

“What is really bothering you about the dinner? What are you really afraid of?”
I took a deep breath. “That they will ask about Dahni.”

She gave an understanding sigh. One of the things that I adore about Maureen is that she doesn’t tell me it will be alright and all those useless platitudes. It will be alright but people are sick of hearing that. For the moment, it just won’t be alright. It just is. Then you buck up and take care of things. It’s how it works. Life goes on. She let the moment pass and then moved onto another topic with grace. I was so thankful.

And sure enough, within the first three minutes of arriving, Marlene asked about Dahni. I just didn’t expect it so soon, but Dahni was his own person, a unique character, and of endless fascination to everyone who heard about him, especially those privileged to meet him. I stammered that we’d lost him – and that sounded so lame, like we let him outside and couldn’t find him, so I corrected it to “he died.” She asked me when and wanted more information, but I kept moving, putting the food on the table, and told her that it was sudden and only a few weeks ago, and that it was still painful. She let it go, as did Motie, thankfully. We kept the conversation going and the topic didn’t come up. I was grateful, but still nervous, just waiting for more questions.

Back to preparing for the meal, the night before the dinner, Brent set the table and cleaned the living room, bathrooms and all, while I chopped, whipped, and boiled. The Osso Bucco meat has to boil and simmer for hours, so I cooked it for two hours then put it in the fridge to finish the last hour or so before we ate the next day. I chopped up all the vegetables ready to put in the oven an hour before the meal, and whipped up the pumpkin bars. Earlier in the day, I had schlepped up the stairs a heavy load of veggies and groceries for the dinner, and I was sure I had everything. Two minutes before Brent came home from work, I reached for the sugar and found there was barely a quarter cup left. I searched the cupboards to no avail. Ugh. Didn’t I just buy a bunch a couple weeks ago? I couldn’t remember. I struggle daily to hand onto the simplest of thoughts lately.
When Brent came in the door, I gave him our usual hug, but held on longer this time. “Is it okay to need you?”

He melted into my arms. “Always.”

“But I need you. I need you. I really need you now.” I could feel him enjoying this thoroughly, holding me even closer. “I do need you. I really need you to go to the store and get some sugar.”

I knew he would be unhappy, but I didn’t expect him to push me away and start stamping his feet and swearing “shit” over and over again. This is just not normal Brent behavior. When he is really angry, he gets super quiet and crawls into the woodwork, a steaming combustion engine. This was strange. Finally, he stopped his stomping to explain that he had known over a week ago that we were running low and had picked up some bags of sugar at the shop near his office, a fifty percent reduction from the price we pay at the local shop. They were still under his desk because he kept forgetting to bring them home. “Well, they don’t help us there, do they? So go get some.”

A few minutes later he was out the door, still cursing himself, and I returned to my vegetable chopping. When he returned I poured in the two cups of sugar and reached for the jar of raisins. It was empty. “Where are the raisins?”

I could tell by his sheepish expression that he knew another trip to the store was coming, and this time, it was indeed his fault. “I ate them.” Off to the store he went for raisins. I did check over the list to see if there was anything else not in the house that is always in the house, and he was cleared for only raisins. We finally got the food all done and I worked for another couple hours on the web page before falling into a restless sleep.

I worked through the day to finish up the last of the food and the cleaning. We ran out of kitchen towels midway through, so I started a load, turning to paper towels. I hate paper towels because I think of them piling up in garbage dumpsters everywhere, blowing around the landscape, but I’m also torn between the chemicals I put in the water to wash the cloth towels. There is just no winning when I start thinking environmental protection, but I used the thoughts to distract me from my other worries.

The dinner was a hit and the food was incredible, thank goodness. The salad was a big success and the osso bucco fell completely apart when you touched it, as it should, having been cooked an additional hour and a half longer than I should have because of late arrivers, but it wasn’t hurt. The veggies could have been crisper, but they were also good enough. The pumpkin bars were a huge hit, so as far as I’m concerned, it was perfect enough for me.

The conversation went from discussing the groups’ recent travels, though Brent and I stayed quiet about ours. Dahni was such a vital part of our travels, hanging out the window of the motor home, racing up and down his parent’s stairs, and with me in and out of airplanes all the time. It was easier to enjoy talking about their travel adventures. Eventually the dinner conversation turned to traveling Israelis, and for a bit I thought we were all bashing Israelis, but I know it wasn’t meant that way, but it felt like it. Marlene finally called a halt to it just as I was about to, so that was nice. Traveling used to be such a joy, so filled with adventure and fun, but now it is such a time-consuming drag no matter where you are traveling to and from. So sad. Then things turned towards politics and it was clear we had some major differences of opinion regarding Israeli politics, but we were all united in our opinion of Bush. Not a good one. Even for the one semi-republican at the table, my husband.

Brent was raised by a rabid republican father and a very quiet but determined democrat mother. It was a long-standing policy that politics were not to be discussed in the house, but his father’s views were felt by all very strongly. Luckily, Brent’s mother kept him open minded enough that he was ready for me, the rapid independent semi-democrat, and anti-republican, to come blasting into his life, making him think about things he had never thought about before, nor wanted to, but now had to.

I think we opened a few eyes for our American guest. He didn’t realize that the so-called “Palestinian Refugees” living in other Arab countries (but in many cases actually former citizens of the country before they went to Trans-Jordan to look for jobs from the British) had no rights as a citizen. They can’t vote, buy property, and in some cases they can’t hold jobs without special permits. He had no idea. Until the Intifada, Israel was the number one employer of Palestinians, with more than 90% of the tourism and agricultural workforce made up of Palestinians. They have more rights under the so called “Israeli occupation” than they do in their home countries, including the Palestinian Authority. This is a fact, not an Israeli-biased opinion. It is also the kind of fact never heard by the media and the public. But it is true. Now, it seems that the King of Jordan, king of the majority of Palestinian refugees (who were once all citizens of the Jordanian government since before 1948, but they lost all their rights as citizens after 1967 – but that is a long story), has announced that 150,000 passports will be issued to Palestinians for entrance to the West Bank, the first time since 1967. According to the news story, Sharon has given permission for this “people for land” deal. I don’t know what the whole story is, and I thought Marlene and Motie would know, but they hadn’t heard anything. I need to look more into this. It makes me so suspicious that typical under-the-table deals are happening. Like I’m some kind of expert and I can influence their idiocy, but I always want to know. That’s me, the inquiring mind.

So dinner ended late, but everyone seemed to have a good time. I wish it had been brighter and happier, but it was what it was. Usually, after people leave one of our parties or dinners, Brent and I have a ritual to put on great dancing music and dance in the kitchen as we clean things up, laughing and re-telling stories about the evening, but it was cleaned up in a snap and we both slunk to our computers, hiding from each other, and just existing. I finally went into the kitchen where he was poking at his computer and asked him what was wrong. What went wrong? Why didn’t we feel like we normally do?

He had no answers. Maybe we are still healing and just coping with the moments as they come. Dahni brought such light and spirit to our home, and it will take some time for it to return with the freedom it once enjoyed. Everything now is still forced. An act for everyone around us. Brent and I are even acting for ourselves, adjusting to the routine of missing Dahni. Even while cooking, standing at the kitchen counter, I so missed the feeling of his paws patting my butt and his kneading massage against my leg that was a frequent daily routine while I was in the kitchen washing dishes, talking to Brent, or fixing lunch. A big hole, Dahni. You left a big hole in our lives.

Tel Aviv, Israel

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