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Lea Lane

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Two Faraway Thanksgivings, And What I Learned

Posted: 11/24/09 12:37 PM ET

My ex married a university president and lived in a historic house where leaves were raked by others and fireplaces crackled picture-perfect below important art and the table was set with Lenox and Steuben. My sons usually spent Thanksgiving at that table.

I adapted to that reality. In the years between my marriages -- the 1980s and '90s -- I'd usually wind up at a friend's Thanksgiving celebration as a stray, and often had a fine time, except when it rained and I'd have to maneuver in the dark, on oak-leaf slicked winding roads back to my Westchester house.

When I was in a relationship, I'd share Cornish hens and candlelight and rose-colored champagne. Many years I'd invite singles over and we'd stay up most of the night in our sweats, and talk about our exs and our kids and how the holiday season had to be endured through Valentine's Day.

And sometimes in those years between my marriages when my kids were at my ex's, I'd have a truly memorable time.

Right now, when the economy has rocked me and I am adapting to a new lifestyle, I find it especially interesting to look back to two unusual Thanksgivings from the last decade of the last century. And by looking back at them, I realize how much things have changed for me. They seem like fantasies. But they are real.

Solo In Malaysia

I was working as executive producer on an interactive language project for the Defense Department in Southeast Asia. Most of the crew headed off to dive; I chose to go to Malaysia for the Thanksgiving break. In Kuala Lumpur I hired a car with a driver who could speak some English and we traveled throughout the country. Past endless, neat groves where palms were grown for oil. Past tiny indigenous communities with houses on stilts and families sitting bare around firepits.

I ate my first durian here, a creamy, foul-smelling fruit -- half peach, half onion -- bought at a stand on the side of the road. Locals seem to love the durian; most others disdain it. (I disdained.)

On Thanksgiving day I arrived at a timbered lodging in the Cameron Highlands, the cool uplands where row after row of tea plantings threaded the hills. At dinner I sat alone, and ordered chicken, feeling rather sorry that the driver didn't want to share the meal. The waiter brought the chicken to me with a smile. And then I smiled, and grinned and laughed. And felt thankful.

He had stuck a little paper American flag in the thigh.


On a Yacht in the Caribbean

The man was from Texas, in "arbitrage." I wasn't sure what that was, but it was enough to place him in an office high in New York's Seagram building. He called me "lil' lady" as in, "Driver, take the lil' lady back to the hotel." He had been active in politics at one time, and fit my need back then for a take-charge guy. I sought father-figures unlike my father, and the more powerful the better.

Texan could get tickets to any Broadway show, fifth row center, last minute. He'd eat at one of two restaurants almost every night: 21 or the Four Seasons, And when I'd dine with him and get up to go to the ladies room he'd slip a $5 bill in my hand to tip the attendant. He had things covered.

So when Texan invited me to spend a long Thanksgiving weekend with him on his "fishing boat" in the Caribbean, it was an easy "yes."

We flew to St. Thomas, where the boat was docked. Well, he called it a boat. It had three levels, a king-sized bed, a marble bath with shower and tub, and a kitchen as big as mine back home. Just us -- and a captain and a cook.

By day, we'd cruise around the Virgin Islands, reggae and rock blaring into blue-on-blue sky and water. He's ask where I wanted to go, and then say, "Cap'n, take the lil' lady to the Baths." Or "Cap'n, dock the boat by the best reef near St. John." We snorkeled among rock formations and coral. He'd fight with a big fish for hours at the back of the boat, while making deals on a cell.

At night we'd dock and eat in the dining room at the Ritz Carlton, just a path away, and later we'd look up at the stars on the boat's front deck. Except for Thanksgiving. That night we drove up into the hills of St. Thomas to a shack with surrounding tables. The place was packed with locals, including lots of Americans living on the island. We consumed goat and fish and rice and fruits and beer. And we talked of Thanksgivings past.

And after I returned to the States I never saw Texan again. That's the way it went in New York in those days. I didn't care. I loved the rush.

**

A couple of years after the Texan I married a very different kind of man, a man who could care less about material things, a man I adored, and then lost too soon. And after eight years, this year I am again with a kind and humble man.

Life gives us many reasons to give thanks, whatever our current problems, be they loss or pain or poverty. Things can turn in a minute. Your priorities can change. You can figure out what really matters and shake the past. One Thanksgiving you're on a dark road alone; another in the hills of a faraway land, laughing with a stranger; the next in a warm room with a good man who says, "I want to make you happy."

You never know.

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