From a distance, you could tell he was struggling.
Each step along the sidewalk took an effort. He was headed westbound toward Wendy’s restaurant. I couldn’t imagine where he had spent the night, where he was coming from or where he was going. The only thing I knew about him was that he was headed our way and he appeared to be hungry.
Imagine any homeless person you’ve ever seen and this older gentleman would fit the profile.
A large orange backpack weighted him down, slowed him down and, undoubtedly, made his journey more difficult. It also looked like his backpack held everything he owned. He appeared to be struggling, like he was tired. Every step appeared to be an effort. On that chilly morning, he looked like one of many citizens who would have a very difficult time counting their blessings on that Thanksgiving Day.
Mike, one of the many volunteers at the community Thanksgiving dinner, saw him coming from a distance and pointed him out. Our goal was to feed everyone in the community who needed a warm dinner. Mike did not want us to miss someone who appeared to have a special need. Once he pointed him out to us and we saw him ambling our way, we knew he would be one of our special guests.
It wasn’t quite noon on Thanksgiving morning. Dozens of people had been working for many hours inside Wendy’s restaurant. Turkey had been sliced. Mashed potatoes had been mixed up and blended with butter. The green beans were ready for serving. Turkey stuffing was hot and ready. We had enough gravy to float a boat. All the extra goodies that make a Thanksgiving meal special were sorted, bagged and ready for home delivery.
Meals were being prepared by the hundreds. Volunteers were arriving with containers to hold the meals and keep them warm. These Thanksgiving meals were going to be delivered all over the county.
Laughter, singing and joy filled the hearts and minds of all the volunteers. There was joy within the walls of Wendy’s. We were all having fun and sharing our blessings.
The gentleman walking toward us on Rombach Avenue was not filled with laughter or joy. He certainly wasn’t singing. Putting one heavy foot in front of the other seemed to take all the energy this old man could muster. It didn’t seem to be a special day for him. I doubted if any of his days were very special.
As he approached Wendy’s, I pointed him out to Tari Mabry. She wanted to be sure he stopped in. She prepared his table while I went to talk with him. I wasn’t sure how our invitation to Thanksgiving dinner would be accepted.
He seemed to be somewhat surprised when I walked up to him and said, “Well, good morning. You look like you might be about ready for a hot Thanksgiving dinner.” His surprise turning into a huge smile. “Really?” He asked. We chatted as we walked into the restaurant.
His table was ready. He took off his heavy backpack and appeared to relax. His meal was set out for him. We brought him a large glass of lemonade. He smiled as he ate. People who were working around him would place a welcoming hand on his shoulder.
He became our special guest. For us, he became the symbol of all those who we fed that day. It was a blessing to us that he happened to wander into our lives that Thanksgiving morning.
I returned to running food from the kitchen to the serving line. The hustle and bustle of Thanksgiving at Wendy’s continued. The laughter and joy continued. The meaning of Thanksgiving became even more clear.
As our special guest was leaving, someone shouted for me in the back of the store. He wanted to say thanks before he left. Instead, we thanked him for stopping by and I gave him a large, red, Styrofoam cup of hot, black coffee for his journey. We shook hands and he left … smiling.
About 20 minutes later, I headed for home to join Debbie as we prepared for our own family dinner. As I drove west on Locust Street, I saw our special Thanksgiving guest walking on the sidewalk. It may have been my imagination, but his step seemed to be a little bit lighter.
As I passed him, I looked in my rearview mirror. He still held onto his large cup of coffee and he had a huge smile on his face. He had been a blessing to everyone at Wendy’s.
I like to think that he was counting his visit to Wilmington as one of his blessings on that Thanksgiving Day.
Randy Riley is Mayor of Wilmington.