Kara used her baby finger to tug on the handle of the patio door as she struggled to balance the armload of firewood that was threatening to slip from her grasp. In the corner of her eye she thought she had spotted a spider darting out of view and she hoped it hadn’t made its way onto the sleeve of her sweatshirt before she had a chance to drop the logs into the fireplace.
Once the patio door was open an inch, she shifted her position using body weight to slide the door the rest of the way. She felt the brush of a wet nose followed by sun-hot fur just above her ankles and was startled for a moment. Kara had almost forgotten that her dog, Trixie, had followed her out into the yard and was eager to get back into the shaded comfort of the cool house.
Stepping carefully, Kara peered over the logs to make sure her Yorkshire Terrier was out of the way before crouching down by the fireplace to transfer her load. Her nose tickled and she felt moisture drip down to her top lip as the urge to sneeze overcame her.
Kara stood up brushing dark bark fragments from her arms, body and upper legs. Instinctively she reached for the Kleenex she had tucked into her sleeve cuff and blew her nose. Feeling a tickle behind her ear, Kara combed her fingers through her unruly, auburn hair, patted her face and did a little dance glancing nervously around her to see if that rogue spider had been the culprit. Nothing. She shivered at the thought of the spider lurking nearby.
Trixie sat panting and watching her with a cocked head and focused brown eyes. She lifted a paw to lick it, and Kara noticed that Trixie whimpered a little when she set it down and then held it hovering just above the floor.
“What’s goin’ on Trix?” Kara cooed as she pitched the crumbled Kleenex into the fireplace and dropped stiffly to her knees on the floor beside her beloved pet. Even as she ran a thumb along the suspect paw, Trixie whimpered again and tried to limp away.
“Not so fast, girl,” Kara whispered as she reached out to scoop Trixie’s wriggling body up and stood to find a well-lit place to examine the injured paw. The television hummed in the next room where she knew her husband, Dan, was relaxing and watching his favourite after-work program.
“Hmm…” Kara mused as she turned the paw over in the light of the window, “It’s a thistle! You poor thing!”
It only took a moment to pull the single barb of the thistle free from Trixie’s paw and a few more from the bottom fringe of her flank and hind legs. The compliant dog gave a grateful lick to Kara’s chin before jumping to the floor and skittering off to the television room where Dan was likely reclining in his chair.
“You’re welcome,” Kara called after her escaped patient as she looked at the thistle barbs in her hand and sneezed once again. She suffered from fall allergies and hated going in the yard this time of year. Trixie had obviously been exploring the abandoned garden patch on the side of the house by the basement window while she had collected the firewood.
Thistles had overtaken the neglected garden and Kara was at odds with how to get rid of them. Something had to be done. Not only were these weeds hurting her precious pet, but they were a source of the fall allergens that plagued Kara’s life every autumn.
“Just buy some of that weed killer,” Dan had suggested earlier that month, “You know…Roundup”.
“Glyphosate is terrible for the environment,” Kara had replied dismissively, “and I think it’s illegal”.
Dan had rolled his eyes and walked away.
Now as Kara tossed the thistle fragments into the trash along with the latest Kleenex tissue, she wondered if maybe she should go pick up some chemicals to spray on those errant weeds after all.
She unscrewed the cap of her non-drowsy allergy medication and popped one in her mouth.
“What a miserable time of year,“ she thought, “No scratch that. This whole YEAR has been miserable.”
It was the beginning of the Thanksgiving weekend and although Kara was going to go through the motions of preparing for a traditional turkey dinner, her heart wasn’t in it. It felt like there was nothing to celebrate.
Dan had been uptight about money lately and was working a lot of overtime. When he was home he was either planted in front of the television or offering unsolicited advise. Kara had put on some weight and been feeling tired a lot lately so even though she noticed he hadn’t been reaching for her very often, she almost didn’t care. They seemed mutually happy to stay in their separate worlds.
Caleb and Ruth, her grown children, had both announced that they wouldn’t be coming home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Caleb’s girlfriend had invited him to visit with her family who lived out of town and Ruth’s new job forced her to work weekends and holidays.
It was just as well. Kara could tell that something had changed in their relationship and the latest visits had been awkward and brief. That made her sad and wondering what had gone wrong. They used to follow her around as devotedly as Trixie did and she loved them fiercely. Now, it was like they couldn’t tolerate visiting her for more than an hour or two.
Kara brushed angrily at a stray tear that had escaped down her cheek. Dan would be looking for dinner soon and she didn’t want to explain for the hundredth time why she looked so sad. He didn’t understand. He was unfazed, almost happy, at the freedom of their empty nest. Finally, he could relax and do what he wanted.
Why couldn’t she be happy too? Hadn’t she dreamed of this life season during the craziness of diaper changes, potty training and parent teacher interviews? Instead she felt like her best years were behind her and like she had lost her purpose for living. Dan was tired of hearing about it, but not as much as she was tired of talking about it.
Kara pulled out the broccoli and the chicken that she had set aside for dinner. The television noise was now silent and all she could hear was the ticking of the clock. Dan must’ve decided to take a nap. The quiet of the house was unnerving so she set up her iPad to stream the latest TV series she was binging on. She had another memory flash of her kitchen being filled with the voices of her family talking over each other to tell her about their days. Would she ever get used to the change?
Once the chicken was in the oven, Kara washed and began to chop the broccoli. The phone rang and she jumped at the sudden ring. It was her mom calling from Florida. That had been another unwelcome change. Grabbing the phone with wet hands and wedging it between her shoulder and ear, she grabbed a hand towel to dry her hands.
“Hi Mum” she called out in greeting, “How’s Florida?”
“Hello Kara,” came her mother’s familiar Scottish accent, “You sound stuffed up. Do you have a cold?”
Kara winced. She did sound like she had a cold. She sounded awful.
“No, mum, it’s just allergies” she explained as she pressed the speaker option, set her phone on the counter and resumed cutting the vegetables.
“Oh, allergies, that’s right,” her mom’s voice echoed through the kitchen, “You should come to Florida. It’s 80 degrees today and you wouldn’t have fall allergies here.”
Kara winced again. She’d LOVE to go to Florida except for the fact that she and Dan had jobs and travelling to Florida would cost money and use precious vacation time. Visiting her parents wasn’t high on Dan’s priority list.
“Sounds great, mum,” Kara admitted after a deep calming breath, “You enjoy that nice weather in Florida. We’ll see if we can make it some time soon, okay?”
They chatted for a few minutes about their respective Thanksgiving plans, her parents new friends and the adventure they were enjoying in their retirement. The broccoli was steaming but as soon as the call ended, Kara found herself digging through the cupboard for the tub of Nutella she had picked up from the grocery store.
She grabbed a spoon out of the drawer and hit the drawer closed with her hip as she tore the foam seal off the top of the jar and took a heaping spoonful of the smooth hazelnut, chocolate and icing sugar concoction.
This was a bad idea. Dinner was almost ready and she didn’t need the fat and sugar. Why had she even bought the jar of spread in the first place? It had been Caleb’s favourite but he wasn’t at home any more. All the angst and questioning faded away as Kara lost herself in a few delicious mouthfuls of the decadent dessert. It tasted so good! Well, there went her latest diet resolve.
Kara heard Dan stirring upstairs and quickly screwed the cap on the Nutella, tucked it into the cupboard and put the spoon in the dishwasher. He wouldn’t say anything if he caught her eating the chocolate but she knew he would not approve of her having it, never mind just before dinner.
“Hey,” Dan greeted her as he walked into the room and flicked on the coffee maker, “What’s the ETA on dinner?”
Kara peeked in on the chicken and gave him the 10-minute warning. He sat at the table as she gathered their plates and cutlery to join him at the table.
“They were offering overtime for Monday and I took it,” Dan announced with a yawn, “It’s triple time.”
Kara stared at him, “You’re working on Thanksgiving weekend?”
He shrugged, “We need the money, Kara. It’s not like we have plans. We can do the turkey anytime. It’s not a big deal.”
Kara took a breath and got up from the table to grab some condiments from the fridge. He was right. They had no plans. They did need the money. It’s just that she’d hoped they would have some time together over the holiday weekend and the thought of being alone for part of it sounded so pathetic to her.
“Oh, and it’s midnights so I’m going to need to go to bed around 3:00pm on Sunday so I can be ready to start work at 11:00pm,” Dan added, “Then I’ll get home in the morning on Monday and try to stay up as long as possible.”
Kara pulled the chicken out of the oven, “Midnights! You HATE midnights!”
She was getting louder and more emotional. Take another breath. She thought about the Nutella in the cupboard again. After dinner, she was going to have more of it for sure.
They ate quietly. Dan was quiet and distracted by flier ads while Kara was angrily wondering how her life had ended up this way. So much for dreams of huge family dinners around the diningroom table. Forget that! She wasn’t even going to have Dan for the whole weekend! Her mum had managed to have the traditional holiday gatherings right up until she left for Florida but this year, Kara wasn’t even going to enjoy that family celebration! Her siblings had moved away to other cities too.
Dan put his dishes in the sink and disappeared into the garage. Kara looked at the ransacked, empty kitchen and the cupboard where the Nutella was hiding.
Trixie whined and Kara looked down at her, “Oh, you want to eat too, don’t you? Why don’t we do your walk first while it’s still light out?”
Kara grabbed Trixie’s leash and secured the harness around her trembling dog. Trixie loved walks and Lord knows, Kara needed the daily exercise. She would feed Trixie and deal with the kitchen cleaning after a head-clearing walk around the block.
Kara glanced at her image in the mirror as she headed to the front door. Her sweatshirt had gotten a few spatters on it during dinner preparations and her makeup needed refreshing but hopefully her appearance would go unnoticed.
Trixie tugged on the leash with her tail high and Kara did her best to keep up with the eager dog. Getting a dog had been a good choice. Despite her dwindling family life, Trixie remained loyal and affectionate. Some deep breaths of the brisk outdoor air as they meandered along the street helped calm Kara’s inward angst.
It was a pretty street with lots of trees and well-kept homes. Children played on their bikes and with their parents sitting or talking nearby. Kara tried to forget about her own children who had once haunted the street in the past. That life was over now. There was no going back.
“Hi Kara,” a neighbour called and waved. She looked like she was ready to turn away and then decided to come to the edge of the road to talk further. Kara slowed her pace and braced herself. This neighbour was friendly but rarely had good news to share. There was always some doom and gloom story that she was upset about and Kara often left their conversations troubled.
“Hi Nancy,” Kara greeted, “Are you ready for Thanksgiving?”
“Oh yes, “ Nancy breathed, “I have the whole family coming over on Monday. Of course, I’m doing EVERYTHING as usual but you know kids these days…they don’t cook or clean. I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking of getting the whole thing catered in…”
Kara shifted the leash from one hand to the other. Even Nancy had family willing and able to gather at her home for the holidays.
“Anyways, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about and I only have a few minutes,” Nancy chatted, “I just wanted to tell you that they’ve had break-ins in the neighbourhood the past couple days so make sure you keep an eye out, okay? They’re breaking in the basement windows and taking EVERYTHING while you sleep! We’re trying to get the word out. If it keeps up we might need to form a neighbourhood watch. Ever since those companies came in to install those fibre optic cables, well, we’ve had a lot of characters hanging around that didn’t know this neighbourhood existed before.”
Kara chatted for a few minutes and continued walking. Nancy was right about the workers who installed the fibre optic cables. One company after another had torn up the neighbourhood and workmen had popped up all over the place during that time. At one point, Kara had been startled to see men’s faces right outside her basement laundry room window as she folded clothes. They weren’t staring in but it unnerved her since she wasn’t used to people being there and she was very visible to them.
Was this new series of home invasions due to the increased traffic to their obscurely located subdivision? It gave her shivers to think of someone entering the house while she slept and taking whatever they wanted. She would talk to Dan about it. Maybe he would reconsider his midnight shift in light of this news.
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Kara looked up to see Willow, her elderly neighbour, glance from the garden she was tending in front of her house. Willow waved her gloved hand in greeting and beckoned Kara over.
“So much for getting around the block unnoticed,” Kara muttered under her breath, “Maybe Willow’s concerned about the break-ins too.”
The elderly woman appraised Kara as she approached in a way that made her feel ill-prepared for this visit. Willow was tall, lean and well kept which contrasted greatly with Kara’s short, round and more casual appearance. Breaking the keen gaze and glancing downward, Kara noticed a familiar weed in Willow’s garden. On cue, she sneezed and apologetically dabbed at her nose with the sleeve of her shirt.
“Allergies?” Willow asked and before Kara could answer she pointed to the chair on her porch, “Here, sit down. I’ll get you a proper Kleenex and something else that might help.”
Kara sat obediently and sighed at her lack of foresight to bring Kleenex of her own on the walk. Willow reappeared with the tissues which Kara took gratefully along with a bright pink, plastic tube.
“It’s a homemade inhaler,” Willow informed her as she saw the look of confusion in Kara’s eyes, “It’s got a wick with essential oils inside. Just unscrew the cap, stick it in one nostril and inhale deeply. It helps, I promise.”
Kara hesitantly unscrewed the cap, inserted the plastic tube and took a deep nasal inhale. She coughed as the almost searing scent of peppermint, lemon and lavender cut through the stuffiness and tingled in her sinuses. She repeated on the other side of her nose.
“Oh wow!” She agreed as she capped the tube tight and started to hand it back, “It really does help, you’re right!”
“Keep it,” Willow insisted wryly as she gently pushed Kara’s outstretched pink tube away from her, “It’s yours, okay? I have a few of them made up for friends. I want you to have it.”
“Thanks!” Kara smiled, “It reminds me of the old Vick’s inhalers when I was a kid. These fall allergies are the worst. You must be trying to get rid of that patch of thistles there…I have some too that need taking care of.”
“Oh no!” Willow insisted, “I’m not getting rid of them at all! I cut them back to keep them from overgrowing my garden but they’re important.”
“Really?” Kara sniffled in surprise, “they’re WEEDS and they’re prickly. Trixie got a barb caught in her paw and in her fur. Why would you want to keep some in your yard on purpose?”
“Well, you’re right to some extent,” Willow conceded with penetrating green eyes that examined Kara’s, “but they have some valuable properties too. Did you know they are edible? Well, maybe not for you dear since you appear to be allergic, but did you know they are a symbol of pain, protection and pride to the Scottish people?”
Kara looked back at Willow not really sure what to say next. She had never considered eating her thistles or thought of them as a symbol of protection or pride. Who did? She was Scottish though so she was curious.
“A Viking army was trying to sneak up on a Scottish army encampment and they walked barefoot into a field of thistles,” Willow explained as though reading Kara’s thoughts, “You can imagine the pain and of course, they yelled out loud which alerted the Scotsmen of the the invasion…well, the Scott’s made the thistle their national flower and put it on their flag!”
Kara did not know that and she was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the information Willow had shared with her about essential oils and thistles. She got up from the chair and started to inch down the drive.
“Do you have plans for Thanksgiving, Willow?” She asked tentatively. Willow was a solo soul and Kara had never seen her with anyone.
“No plans for me other than the usual. Thanksgiving is something I do every day, Kara,” Willow crowed happily following her to the road, “My kids live out east and out west and they have families of their own.”
“Do you miss them?” Kara asked quietly as she turned to face the older woman. Her eyes instantly filled with moisture as she thought of this lovely woman alone.
“Kara, of course I miss them,” Willow said matter-of-fact. Kara noticed she was holding a thistle in her garden-gloved hand, “but even circumstances that are painful have positive qualities, right? Like our thistle here? No use dwelling on the negative all the time. I’m going to be grateful for what I have and the life I’ve lived no matter what day it is.”
Kara turned and walked away feeling intimidated by Willow’s unwavering positivity and was confused trying to determine what positive qualities could arise from not having one’s family around them during the holidays. She shrugged. Maybe Willow was going a bit senile. Who keeps thistles even with their ancient history?
Still Kara couldn’t deny that Willow’s upbeat approach to life must be what sustained her through her husband’s death and the years alone without her family. Willow didn’t look like the kind of person who wallowed, drowning in a pity party of Nutella. She was thriving!
Later that evening, after the dishes were done. Kara sat by the fire she had prepared earlier that day with a notebook and pen in her lap along with a well-fed, contented Trixie.
“What do I have to be grateful for this Thanksgiving?” She asked herself.
“I have a lovely home…it’s lonely now with Dan working so much and the kids gone but it’s a very nice place to live and some people don’t have homes.”
Kara went on to list all her blessings:
- Clean drinking water
“I have Dan,” she mused, “I mean, we don’t have the ideal marriage but he works hard to provide for us and that’s a form of love, right?”
Suddenly she realized how critical she had been of her husband. He wasn’t the romantic, nurturing companion that she read about in romance novels but she wasn’t like the heroine in those books either.
She kept listing her blessings and then found herself praying for forgiveness for not appreciating the good in her life.
“My children have grown up and moved on with their lives but at least they are thriving and have achieved independence…” Kara told herself, “How many parents have their children living at home as adults in co-dependent relationships where their children never grow up and take responsibility.”
As Kara kept listing and verbalizing all her blessings, she felt less burdened and unhappy.
What could she do to proactively make Thanksgiving better despite the metaphorical thistles?
She decided to call a friend who had recently been widowed. She talked about her day and it’s adventures and discoveries to Vienda who listened raptly.
“I wouldn’t have survived Fred’s passing if I hadn’t made cue cards of blessing and focused on them,” Vienda shared when Kara was done, “I have the kids but it’s so hard to do everything without his help. This is our first Thanksgiving without him and I don’t know how I could get through it without continually reminding myself how blessed I am.”
“Would you want to bring the kids over to my house and celebrate Thanksgiving together?” Kara blurted out before she had time to think. Vienda hesitated and it made her feel foolish for offering.
“Are you sure?” Vienda said quietly, “It’s a lot of work and my crew can be a bit rowdy. They’re acting out a bit as they deal with losing their dad.”
“Absolutely, Vienda,’ Kara assured her with relief, “You would be doing me a favour! I need to focus on something other than my quiet, empty house for once!”
“I appreciate it. No, WE appreciate it,” Vienda affirmed after they had hammered out the details, “Oh, and I emailed you some info on a course I’m planning to take in January in case you’re interested. It’s called 40 Days to Change.”
“40 Days to Change?” Kara echoed, “What is that? Is it a diet?”
“Not at all,” Vienda laughed, “Although I could use that too. No, it’s a simple, step-by-step plan to bring positive change to all areas of your life: Physical, Emotional, Relational and Spiritual. I really need something like this right now because so much has happened and I don’t even know who I am or what I should be doing now that my life with Fred is over.”
“It sounds like something I could use too,” Kara agreed, “I feel the same way. Like my life is both stuck and spinning out of control. It’s hard to describe but I’m not coping well. It might take more than 40 days to change me but I’ll take a look at it.”
Feeling a keen pang of excitement, Kara resolved to drop by Willow’s the next day and invite her to celebrate their Thanksgiving meal as well. Kara fell asleep that night feeling very different than she had in a long time.
The next day as she set about to clean the house and prepare for Monday’s company, even Dan noticed her change of mood.
“What’s going on?” Dan asked when she poured his morning coffee the next day and gave him a relaxed, happy smile. She had gotten up a little earlier, dressed and put on some makeup, “Are we going somewhere?”
“No, nothing like that, Dan,” Kara laughed, “Do you want bacon and eggs?”
Dan loved big breakfasts so he smiled back and gave her a tentative hug, “Sure. Call me in from the garage when it’s ready?”
Kara made the breakfast and shyly shared her thistle revelation with Dan as they dipped toast in the warm, yellow yolks. She found herself apologizing for having a critical attitude toward him and being caught up in self-pity over the changes in their family.
“You’ve seemed so unhappy,” Dan admitted, “I felt like nothing I did was good enough. I didn’t know how to fix it. I know I’ve been working a lot lately but at work I feel appreciated and like what I do matters.”
Kara saw the hurt in his eyes and realized that his closed-off emotions were really his way of managing the pain he was feeling and not disinterest or apathy toward her as she had imagined.
They committed to do better at speaking positively about their relationship and their family dynamics…even their jobs and finances.
“If you want, I’ll go take care of those thistles,” Dan offered, “and I can’t get out of working this weekend but I can take you apple picking if you want.”
“Yes to the apple picking!” Kara exclaimed happily, “but why don’t we leave the thistles alone for now? Maybe I’ll keep a patch of them as a reminder that good things can come from the weeds of our life just like Willow does.”
“Whatever you say,” Dan conceded playfully, “but you’re starting to sound like a kooky, old lady to me.”
The weekend progressed much better than Kara had imagined but she was still a little unsettled about spending the night alone in an empty house. She realized that she should add not having to sleep alone to her blessing list! Dan hadn’t worked midnights in years.
She bundled down in their bed with Trixie, her cell phone and a flashlight. As much as she was certain that she wouldn’t sleep at all, she soon fell into a comatose state in the absence of Dan’s snoring.
She woke with a start at the sound of a loud yell. It was so dark, she couldn’t see anything but Trixie began to bark and she saw lights go on in the street. Instinctively she felt around for her phone and dialled the police and told them what she had heard.
“We got another call from your neighbours, ma’am,” the officer reported, “Just stay in your house and wait for an officer to arrive. You’re safe.”
Kara’s heart was beating as she felt for the light and switched it on then put on her robe. She looked out the window and it seemed like a group had gathered on the street. What was happening out there?
She dialled Dan and he promised to come home as soon as he could get permission even though she insisted the police had said everything was fine.
It was later over coffee that she told Dan the story as she had come to understand it from her neighbours and the police who dropped by to take her report and ask if she wanted to press charges.
The thief who had been breaking into the homes and stealing had seen Dan leave for work at 11:00pm. Having observed their comings and goings over the past few months, he was aware that Kara was at home alone so he had decided to target their home that night.
The man had apparently put on latex gloves outside the basement window and then put down one hand into the patch of thistles as he leaned forward to break or wedge it open. He had yelled in pain which alerted some of the neighbours who were actively watching out for the intruder. It was Nancy who had called the police to say that the thief had been captured by a couple of neighbourhood men.
“Latex gloves would’ve been no match for those thistles,” Kara laughed hysterically as she imagined the thief’s pain and dismay and the yell that had woke her up out of sleep, “It was just like the Scottish tale! The thistles had caused the invader to yell and alert everyone of the threat!”
Alternating between laughter and somber thoughts about what could have happened if those thistles hadn’t prevented a break-in, Dan and Kara hugged each other. They thanked God for the thistles that ultimately kept their home safe and lead to the capture of the criminal who had terrorized their community.
Eventually, the excitement died down and they went back to bed for a couple of hours.
Kara rose after a brief sleep to prepare for her Thanksgiving guests. She had prepared the turkey and apple pie the day before and had it warming while she made the mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes and salad. Vienda had insisted on bringing the rolls and vanilla ice cream. Willow was bringing some ham and a green bean dish that she insisted was an absolute must.
Dan was tired and groggy but he decided to get up and join Kara in her last minute preparations.
“Would you please go get a vase from the basement?” Kara instructed as she disappeared into the garage.
Dan filled a heavy, crystal vase with water and set it in the middle of the table. He looked up in surprise to see Kara holding a handful of newly cut purple thistles in gloved hands. She gently slipped them into the vase.
“That is an interesting centrepiece,” he mused as he put an arm around her shoulder.
Later as guests arrived to warm hugs and animated conversation, Kara sat them at the dining table and filled every available space with dishes of Thanksgiving fare. After they took each other’s hands and offered a blessing over the meal, Kara sneezed.
Everyone stopped talking and looked at her as she patted her red nose with a bundle of Kleenex and through teary eyes she smiled and said, “Let me tell you what I am grateful for…”
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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Beautiful story! Thank you for sharing your talent!
Thanks for reading Lori!
Thanks for sharing your beautiful gift with us just prior to this wonderful season of Thanksgiving
What a precious story!
I am so very grateful for you and the talent God has graced you with.
Enjoy every minute of this coming weekend.
Thanks for reading! Looking forward to our visit to discuss writing projects.