Dad had been gone a number of months by the time Thanksgiving neared on that frosty cold Arkansas afternoon of 1987. We all missed him terribly, but the surprise dog he gave us out behind the old wood pile we named Shadow kept us company most days. The puppy just adored my brother. We had Shadow for 17 years, and in all that time he was always my brothers best friend.
The pet chickens were roosting out on the porch railing as usual. Shadow was sleeping warm and snug in the house, Mom was on her way up the drive to pick us up from the school bus stop. The little blue Dodge Aries crunched over the gravel and snowflake patterned bits of ice between the rocks. Condensation poured from the exhaust pipe, rippling up through the air like the smoke from a chimney. She pulled over in front of Mr Cullum's house. We clambered to get in to the car, our hands and noses freezing.
I remember watching out the window the entire ride back to the house down that mile long dirt road. George and Sissy, the neighbors Dalmatians, had crated tracks through the fields of snow. They bounded and leaped like spotted gazelles through the snow banks, leaping here and there. I hated those dogs, but I had to admit that on the cold winter morning with the fresh blanket of snow, their disembodied black spots flying through the air looked like an elegant dance.
It had been a good day. All the kids at school were talking about what they were going to be doing for the Thanksgiving holiday. Some were going away to visit family. Others planned to stay home with their moms and dads. I missed my Dad, as he and I had been really close up until he left for Alaska that year. I thought about him as we rode home and wondered what he would be doing for Thanksgiving all alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
We pulled into the driveway and I could hear Shadow yipping in the house. He was a tiny puppy still, maybe 4 months old, but he had a very excited, shrill voice at that age. I imagine our nearest neighbors a mile away could have heard his barks echo off of the snow on that quiet afternoon.
Mom warned us to watch our step, the steps had frozen over. She urged us to hold on to the hand rail while climbing the stairs to the front door. Then she told us to head on in, the door was unlocked.
My mitten hand tried to grab the frozen knob and turn, but my grip failed and my mitten slid clear around the handle without turning it even a quarter of an inch. Mom reached over with her leather gloved hand and turned it for me.
I looked inside and stood amazed. I'm not sure how long I stood there motionless, but eventually I began to cry uncontrollably.
"Go on in, Manda," my mother urged. My brother stood behind me. He couldn't see what I saw.
There was my father, my one and only father, sitting on the couch looking at me. My eyes had a hard time focusing. How could my mother do this to us? What a cruel joke it was to have a life sized cardboard cutout in our living room waiting for us when we came home. Didn't she know how much we missed him? I sobbed harder. My brother poked his head around the door, not quite certain what was going on.
It moved. The cardboard cutout moved. I jumped. It extended it's hands towards me and emitted a familiar, far away voice.
"Come here, Manda. It's ok."
I don't remember crossing the floor that day or throwing myself into my fathers arms, but I remember sobbing so hard on his shoulder my body shook, crying my eyes out.
"What's the matter, Honey," he asked as he cradled me in his right arm, hugging my brother with his left.
"I thought you were a cardboard cut out!" I wailed.
Dad and mom both burst into uncontrollable laughter, howling so hard my dad's deep laugh hurt my ears. I just held on tighter, choking him around the neck. My brother laughed at me, too. Eventually, with all of them laughing at me, I began to laugh as well and my tears dried up.
I don't remember the meal that year or the conversations that took place that Thanksgiving. I don't remember how long he stayed or the day he left. But I remember my cardboard dad. By far it would have to be my most favorite Thanksgiving memory, the day I found my real father, hidden behind the cardboard veneer.