I was house-sitting for a friend in Topanga Canyon that year when November rolled around, in the thick of writing the novel that would transform my life. The writing was grueling. Slow and elusive, year three of the 10 it would take to complete.
I started to wonder about Thanksgiving and how I could bring a semblance of family normalcy to my twenty-something sons. It was only a few years since the divorce, and our family rituals were shaky. A haunting emptiness rose up within me just thinking of Thanksgiving. Far from extended family with no permanent home, I understood deeply, for the first time in my life, why so many people suffer during the holidays.
It was not just my sons, grown and leading their own lives, but myself I was hoping to soothe with a traditional Thanksgiving.
If I had been living in a normal house I could have solved the problem with ease. But the one I was in was owned by a Hari Krishna devotee, right now in India. Meat and alcohol were forbidden. Still, thoughts of creating a real Thanksgiving began to take root in my mind.
As if he were clairvoyant, my friend called from India to tell me that a visitor was about to arrive, a guru who needed a peaceful place to stay while undertaking a 10-day fast. "Don't worry," said my friend. "He'll be fine."
The guru arrived, a young man dressed all in white, and settled into a downstairs bedroom accessible only by ladder. He came up to chant on the deck, drink his last meal, a red liquid, and tell me he would see me from time to time.
Meanwhile, I had decided to proceed with Thanksgiving. After bouts at the desk I would drive down curvy Topanga Boulevard to the supermarket, returning with bags of groceries. I could make my famous sweet potato pie, the cranberry orange relish. I could cook Brussels sprouts, make stuffing. With fresh bread or Pepperidge Farm?
My obsession with Thanksgiving began to take over my writing hours, and often instead of writing I would be cooking, filling the house with Thanksgiving smells.
Occasionally, the guru would emerge to lie on the couch, or sit on the deck. The more I cooked, the thinner he got. His gait became slow, and I began to worry about him. He was wasting away before my eyes.
The turkey dilemma had not entirely resolved itself. But really, how could I even contemplate cooking a turkey in a house that forbid it, betraying my dear friend's trust, not to mention the insult it would be to the fasting guru?
A few days before Thanksgiving, my younger son called. He had just moved in with friends to a house in Bel Air. Why not just have Thanksgiving there? Before I knew it I was cooking Thanksgiving for 30.
While the guru weakened, spending hours in prayer and rest, I turned myself into a one-woman cooking machine.
The day before Thanksgiving I saw him slowly climb out of the underground room, shuffling toward the bathroom. He could hardly lift his feet. How could I leave a starving man to cook a feast? I had never seen anyone in such fragile condition. Should I alert my friend in India? Approach the guru with my fears? Or just pay attention to my Thanksgiving plans?
Then I drove to a supermarket and bought the largest turkey I could get my hands on.
The Bel Air house was full of homey worn furniture and the kitchen was old and fine. My son and I swam laps in the pool after putting the turkey in to roast. The California sun shone warm and mild. The friends began to arrive bearing favorite-food gifts -- ham, pastrami, éclairs, champagne. There were so many helping hands. Everything we needed was there.
Before the meal I asked everyone to gather in the family room and stand in a circle. I wanted to express how grateful I was to be given this home, such abundance, One by one people spoke of how grateful they were to be there. Some passed phones to me. Faraway parents wanting to say how happy they were that their far-flung children were having a real Thanksgiving.
Then laughter and chatter and plates laden with the familiar wonderful food of the day, and some excellent pastrami. My sons looked so happy. My heart was as full as I'd ever remembered.
It was nearly midnight when I got back to Topanga under a black starry sky, wood smoke in the air.
To my great relief the guru was sitting on the couch, a white wisp. "I've been waiting for you," he said. On the coffee table were a pitcher filled with red liquid and two plastic cups. He spoke a blessing, and together we drank.