Illustration by Jack Unruh

Before a waiting feast, eternal blessings are what a child endures and an old man learns to savor.

When I was a little boy, the words seemed to last forever. It seemed like we were walking the Exodus ourselves, one paragraph at a time. Surely, I figured, thousands of little boys had starved to death between the words "Let us pray..." and "Amen."

The bad thing was, from where I sat, hands clasped but one eye open, I could see it all, and more than that I could smell it all, this wonderful feast laid out hot and steaming: Thanksgiving, my favorite day on the calendar, better than the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Presidents' Day all lumped into one. The pinto beans bubbled in the battered pot, molten with the fat from big chunks of ham. Hot biscuits rested under a warm towel. Mashed potatoes, creamed onions, cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese—all waited, each one sending its own perfume wafting through the house. And in the middle of it all sat the big turkey, its sides trickling with melted butter, specked with black pepper, so close—why, a drumstick was just a side step and quick grab away—and yet so far.

But it would all be cold as a Confederate statue on Christmas morning by the time we got any of it. Between me and all this bounty stretched what we have called and will always call "The Blessing." It consisted, as near as I could tell, of reading the King James Bible front to back, then holding a discussion on its finer points. While I now see the beauty in those words and in this tradition, I was an ungrateful heathen back then, thinking only of my belly and my own little self.

Before anyone fires off an angry letter pointing out the heathenness I have already confessed—I have learned that admitting to such things in some preemptive hope just makes people mad at you for robbing them of the opportunity to flog you unencumbered—let me say that I know how selfish and ignorant I was to wish for a shorter blessing, a more truncated thanks. I know. I get it. I was a bad child. But I was suffering.

I grew up with Pentecostals, and they do not have a short blessing in their lexicon. They are not like some denominations that see prayer as a fixed ritual; the Congregational Holiness go to town with a prayer, and they do not turn loose of one till they have wrung it dry. So I suffered.

Sometimes, they would have a child do a blessing, and I would grow hopeful, because surely they would not have so many words at their disposal, and older ladies would pat the good child when he was done and say "How precious." But I came to know that this was only a warm-up to the main event, and that a grown-up, a deacon even, would take over, to close the show.

What would happen, I once wondered, if I just broke down in the middle of the litany of things we were thankful for, and snatched a wing? I could be halfway across the pasture and into the deep woods before they ran me down. But it was too awful, the eventual consequences, to even talk about with nice people.

So I suffered.

Now, it is one of those things I wait for all year. My uncle John does the blessing now, and he is a man of honor and brings to us a gentle message of great warmth and dignity. It is a simple prayer of thanks for this one day, for the grace that has allowed us to gather here for one more year. I think anyone, of any faith, or of no faith at all, would see great value in it. It is never too long, this message, though; the older and older I get, it is sometimes over much too soon.