It has been said that Thanksgiving is the most traveled holiday in the U.S. More people go home for Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year. While there is often a lot of joy associated with family gatherings this time of year, there can also be angst and uncertainty. Old hurts between siblings surface and for those who have been away a long time, a feeling of no longer belonging leads to estrangement.
In my story “Bus Ride to Love,” from the e-book Autumn’s Gold, Ellen Curtis is facing just such a dilemma. Having left North Dakota far behind when she took a job in Chicago years ago, Ellen no longer feels a part of her family and has stayed away much too long. But this Thanksgiving, she is taking the long way home to try and reconnect. It turns out to be a bus ride of unexpected surprises.
Ellen Curtis didn’t mind rock music. She’d grown up listening to some of the loudest rock bands around. It was just that after hours of being blasted by music played at its most obnoxious level, she was ready to scream. But screaming would hurt too much. Her poor head was already pounding as if 16 jackhammers were at work between her ears.
She had expected the Thanksgiving bus ride from Chicago to Red Butte, North Dakota, to be long, dull, and relaxing; a time to gather her wits before facing the Curtis clan. So far it had only been long, and it wasn’t even half over.
Things change rapidly when a new driver boards the bus and issues an ultimatum.
He stood in front of the bus, surveying them all with a gaze of pure steel. Burly wasn’t the word to describe him. More like massive. His chest was wide and the sleeves of his jacket strained over bulging biceps. Musclemen didn’t usually do much for Ellen, but she had the feeling this fellow came by his brawn quite honestly. He’d probably never seen the inside of a workout gym or health club in his life.
With cool gray eyes he swept over the rows of passengers and settled at last on the three orange-haired rockers. Ellen saw his jaw clamp down hard.
The rock band members are soon put in their place with Douglas Maddock’s warning that the noise will stop—now—and the ride becomes more tolerable, but when the bus becomes stranded at a tiny bus station on the prairie, because of a sudden blizzard, Ellen learns that Douglas is a former lumber man from Oregon, a single dad whose son lives with his parents while he’s driving the bus. She ends up telling him about the family she is going home to see, the sister who is marrying Ellen’s former boyfriend the day after Thanksgiving, and her parents who were less than happy when she moved away. Ellen wonders if “they’ll ever accept me for the way I am. At my age it shouldn’t matter anymore, but family disapproval is a hard thing to deal with, no matter how old you get.”
When she calls her parents to tell them of the delay, her sister Tammy is worried she won’t make it home for the wedding.
“But tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, and the wedding’s Friday at four. What if you don’t make it?’
“Then marry Sonny without me,” Ellen said snidely and clicked off, feeling like the Wicked Witch of the East. Why did she feel so down on Tammy marrying Sonny? She certainly didn’t want him anymore.
Ellen is upset when Maddock asks her if the censure she feels isn’t just “all in your head, Ellen Curtis?” But then, maybe it is. Her parents seem genuinely worried, and when Douglas Maddock gets the bus to Red Butte in time for the wedding, Ellen’s father is anxiously waiting to pick her up. It strikes Ellen how much older her father looks. The weekend passes, Tammy marries Sonny, and Ellen begins to see that, though not much has changed, There was an order and purpose to life that was comfortable and reassuring, and Ellen wondered that she had ever considered such a life boring and repetitious. There was nothing more repetitious than sitting at a computer all day.
When her father takes her back to the bus station on Monday, he asks her to not stay away so long again, and this time she will keep her promise to come home more often. When she boards the bus Ellen is suddenly saddened to see the driver isn’t a burly man with cool gray eyes. But after they are on the road, someone sits down beside her and asks, “Things change much?” She admits no, but that’s okay. She notices his eyes are a warm blue color today. He asks if maybe she would come to visit Oregon? She could meet his son. Ellen says she would like that and settles back to watch the landscape slip by, glad it’s such a long way back to Chicago.
How many people can relate to Ellen’s situation? Probably all of us in one way or another, even if we’ve never personally experienced the kind of estrangement she has, we still all have our differences. But perhaps that is why Thanksgiving is the most traveled holiday, because sooner or later we all need to set aside differences and celebrate what makes us more alike.