My family has had a few Thanksgivings that really stand out. Most have involved either bad weather in the form of snowstorms, or traveling. When I was 10, we drove out to San Diego to have Thanksgiving with my grandmother’s brother and his wife. That one was weird – it didn’t seem like Thanksgiving at all with balmy weather and swaying palm trees. What I remember most about that Thanksgiving is eating lunch at a Taco Bell – it would be well over a decade before the chain expanded into Illinois; back then the food was new and exotic (and much better quality than it is now).
Then there was the time my mom and grandparents and I drove to Georgia to have Thanksgiving with my dad, a career National Guardsman stationed there for a training course. Another year a blizzard knocked out power lines the day before Thanksgiving, leaving us with no electricity for almost 24 hours (it came back at 11 a.m. Thanksgiving morning) and 18 people coming for dinner.
But our most memorable Thanksgiving wasn’t primarily about either bad weather or making a journey, although they did play a part. And even though they were significant factors, I wasn’t involved with either of them. In fact, I didn’t even eat Thanksgiving dinner with my family that year. I was in the hospital.
The reason it was our most memorable Thanksgiving was in the hospital, too: Our first child, Anne, was born just after midnight on Wednesday.
Anne wasn’t supposed to be a Thanksgiving baby. My due date had been Oct. 25. The timing seemed perfect. My husband, Peter, was in his freshman year of dental school at the University of Illinois’ medical campus. A late October birth would give him plenty of time before he’d begin studying for finals; by Thanksgiving the baby and I should be able to travel to Springfield.
Humans plan and God laughs. I laugh whenever hearing first-time couples talking about their due date as if it’s set-in-stone and making plans for before and after the birth. All three of my kids were a month late. Nowadays doctors rarely let pregnancies go that far beyond term, but on that Tuesday before, I had an appointment with my obstetrician to “discuss options.”
It was Peter’s last day of classes before the holiday and before finals. He’d gone into the dental school to take his last Gross Anatomy test. (Gross was the appropriate term – pins were stuck into different muscles and body parts of a roomful of cadavers, that the students had to walk around and identify. Yuk!) He said he’d be home by 3 p.m., in plenty of time to come to my 4 p.m. appointment. When he hadn’t come by 3:45, I began getting anxious. Minutes before the appointed time, I called the doctor’s office. “Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you,” the receptionist told me cheerfully. 4:15….4:30… and still no Peter. By now I was frantically pacing the floor. Oh, to have had cell phones back then! I felt a rush of fluid – my water had broken. Where could Peter possible be? Thankfully, he showed up just minutes later. He’d been up most of the night studying for the GA test and fallen asleep on the El. Not only had Peter missed the transfer that would bring him to our Oak Park apartment, but he’d not woken up until the very end of the line, in the farthest reaches of Southside Chicago and had to make his way back.
Peter broke the speed limit getting to the doctor’s. It’s standard practice now to hospitalize women whose water has broken to prevent infection, but things were more casual then. “Go on home. Head to the hospital when your contractions are 10 minutes apart. If they haven’t started by morning, give me a call,” my doctor told me.
But the first contraction hit as I was getting into the car, and by the time we got home, it was clear that we weren’t going to be there long. I’d frequently joked about walking to the hospital when I was in labor – it was only a block and a half away. But as I plodded down the sidewalk I wasn’t sure it was worth the bragging rights, not least because my now-puffy feet only fit into sandals and it was snowing. Still, I made it, and five minutes after midnight, Anne came into the world.
It was clear she really was late. Anne didn’t have that wrinkly newborn look. And she had hair – lots of it, about two inches long. “She’s got the most beautiful blonde hair,” crooned the nurse as she took Anne to clean her. Then I got the biggest surprise of my life: “Why, why, oh my gosh,” the nurse stammered as she scrubbed the little head with a soft cloth. “It’s not blonde – it’s red!”
Red it was – bright red. I always knew when the nurses were bringing her to my room because of the commotion she created in the hallway. The only red-headed relatives in my family were a couple of my grandmother’s cousins; on Peter’s side it wasn’t much closer.
Back in Springfield, my parents and grandparents were preparing for the trek north. As the weeks passed, we knew they’d have to come to Oak Park, so the D Day-esque preparations (including bringing our home-grown corn, spinach, lima beans, potatoes and turkey) had begun days earlier. My mom and dad left work early, mom stopping off at the now-defunct Bressmer’s department store to buy an exquisite newborn dress. Snow began falling as she walked to her car.
By the time mom got home, the snow was heavy and wet. Strong winds were howling; blizzard-like conditions were predicted. Some of the loading was completed, but my dad and grandparents had stopped, figuring they’d wait until the weather and roads cleared. But they hadn’t reckoned with my mother’s zeal.
My mom is pretty much a force of nature under any circumstances, but becoming a grandmother elevated her to new heights. “If you don’t want to come, fine, but I’m going to see that baby if I have to walk,” she told my dad and grandparents.
At the hospital, I vaguely knew it was snowing, but didn’t give it much thought. Knowing my folks would be leaving in the late afternoon/early evening, when my phone rang at 10 p.m., I asked, “Are you downstairs?”
“No,” my mom answered. “We’re in Bloomington.” It had taken them more than four hours to get there from Springfield. Suggestions to check into a hotel and continue in the morning met with my mom’s same response. Conditions improved somewhat as they drove north; still it was after 3 a.m. when they reached Oak Park, where throughout the night Peter had shoveled a parking space for them in front of our apartment.
Later that day my hospital room shimmered with baby adoration as I ate my grandmother’s and mom’s Thanksgiving food that tasted of home.
I’ve always chuckled whenever I’ve heard the story of their journey through a blizzard to see Anne. But I never really understood it until last year, when our newest family member arrived in the world. Robbie was also born the day before Thanksgiving, although we didn’t know about him until 10 days later when Anne and her husband, Ben, brought him home to their New York apartment. Forty-eight hours later I made my own first-time grandmother pilgrimage, much of it also through sleet and snow. Though the weather wasn’t quite as bad, I had a lot farther to go.
As I write, D Day-esque preparations are once again underway for our journey to Brooklyn. By the time you read this, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving and two other special reasons for giving thanks: Robbie’s first birthday, and Anne’s birthday two days later.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.