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The Empty Chair at Thanksgiving Dinner

   Ah…November. We pull our sweaters tightly around us as our feet crunch fallen leaves. We drink hot cider and pull out pie recipes. We make lists of Thanksgiving dinner ingredients, invitees and décor. For some of us, this season is the warmest and happiest of all, but for others, this time of year brings back memories of loved ones who are gone. We remember family togetherness and wonder if we’ll ever feel complete again. Will this time of year always be bittersweet? I asked myself that question when the loss of my grandma drastically changed our family traditions.

      My family moved a lot during my childhood, and Grandma’s home was the one constant place in my life. It wasn’t fancy, just a simple two-bedroom condo with a den. That condo was part of my earliest memories and my happiest ones. Grandma and I had an incredible bond. As a little girl, I’d arrive at her house and she would quickly fall into step beside me. We baked lemon bread, played cards, wrote “books,” made tents, and did anything else I desired. We laughed, sang and pretended. Grandma made sure that I had plenty of clothes and toys. She wouldn’t let her granddaughter suffer as she had during the Great Depression.

     Thanksgiving was quite a feast at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Grandpa had a particular palette, so Grandma prepared both turkey and ham to make sure everyone was happy. The side dishes were the kind of fare that filled many stomachs during wartime in the ‘40s. Seasonings were simple. The highlight of the meal was the assortment of homemade pies—usually pumpkin, apple and cherry. Grandma deflected all compliments and gave the credit to “Mercy,” a woman who impacted her greatly as a young woman. We had all heard the instruction for pumpkin pie: ”You wait until it’s just the right color brown and pour it into the crust…” It was a recipe that couldn’t be captured on a 3x5 card.

     We celebrated Thanksgiving in the same manner each year of my life—until I got married and followed my military husband’s assignment across the country. It was too hard to travel back for Thanksgiving or Christmas that first year, and Grandpa passed away the next summer. My parents sold their home and moved in with Grandma. I came home for the holidays when I could. Grandma was in her nineties, so my mom and aunt did most of the cooking, but Grandma still baked the pies.

     It was early November in 2008 that my dad called to tell me Grandma had been rushed to the hospital. She had pneumonia and her kidneys were failing. There wasn’t time to travel, so I called her hospital room and my brother put me on speakerphone. I told Grandma that I loved her and I knew that because she loved Jesus I would see her again in heaven. Grandma couldn’t talk, but my brother said she was smiling. She was gone the next day.

     Each November brings frequent memories of Grandma. I remember her tireless work in the kitchen, her smile and inability to say “No” to her grandkids. My mind revisits the dear home that is now rented to strangers.

     My husband and I now celebrate Thanksgiving with church friends and single Navy sailors looking for a hot meal. Separation from family is hard, but it has strengthened our marriage and friendships and made us rely on the Lord. We can cook a turkey with all the trimmings and make pies. My children love the food, but I know it doesn’t compare to Grandma’s pies—the kind that Mercy made.

     Recently, the Lord has given me a fresh revelation of eternity that has been like medicine for my wounded heart. I realize that my grandma never died, for there is no death for those who surrender to Christ Jesus. My pastor says the kingdom of God is like a two-story house. The saints who have gone before us are upstairs, and we are downstairs. I like to think that there is a lavish, gourmet feast upstairs while we eat our homespun meals down below. I believe that “the great cloud of witnesses” is nearer than we know. Most certainly, if we could see our loved ones in eternal glory for just a moment, we would never mourn for them again. 

     The Lord Jesus is so close to us, too. He will never leave us, nor forsake us. To pass from one life to the next is to take His hand and walk with Him, literally. It’s not scary. It doesn’t hurt.

     One of the sweetest stories I’ve heard came just weeks ago from a dear friend. She was in the hospital at her dying mother’s bedside. The room was peaceful and dimly lit. Her mother could barely whisper because she had so little strength left. Suddenly, with a normal, clear voice her mother said, “He’s right beside me. I can see Him now, right now. He’s right here.” What a holy moment it was for my friend as her mother slipped into eternity. She grieves for her mother with the assurance that the goodbye is temporary.

     As we celebrate this year, we may feel pangs of sadness for those who no longer occupy our table. True awareness of eternity eases that sorrow. It helps to remember that our Savior attends our gatherings, and the folks upstairs are celebrating, free of pain and full of indescribable joy.  Soon, very soon, we will all be together forever. I believe that when I enter our home—the one my soul longs for—Grandma will be waiting, eyes sparkling and in her hands a big slice of Mercy’s pie.


“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9 (NLT)

Copyright © 2008-2015 Rhema Peet

Reader Comments...
2011-11-25 20:03:55
"Dear Rhema, I loved your article. My own mother died November 20th 1971, I was 10 years old and she was only 42. This time of year is always tough yet I love the fall. When I see the leaves fall, I know it is almost time to think about that Thanksgiving. This year was 40 years since she died. I am so grateful that God will never leave me nor forsake me. I now have my own family and I am grateful for every Thanksgiving!!"
        - Theresa
2011-11-01 12:44:52
"Very beautifully written Rhema. Ahhhhh, it touched my heart and caused me to recall my similar "Grandma memories." Our family will have an empty chair this Thanksgiving but we will be filled with joy knowing that we will see my Mom again in the blink of an eye. Thank you for sharing this!"
        - JoAnne

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