Thanksgiving feeds us in the obvious turkey and stuffing kind of way, but also in heart and spirit.

Remember as a kid the excitement of Thanksgiving morning? The smell of sage and cranberries drew us from our beds and we’d drag our toys into the kitchen to “help” with dinner. We’d ask 50 questions — “What’s a gizzard?” — as Mom and Dad worked to make everything perfect.

Then we graduated from the kids’ table to the adult table and the holiday lost its excitement for a few years, maybe until we came home from college and woke up in our old bedrooms to that familiar smell again.

Thanksgiving isn’t a Norman Rockwell painting for everyone, but that’s what makes it the most American of holidays. If there’s ever a time to pause and think about gratitude, it’s in the moments that define change or newness.

Deep feelings of nostalgia permeate the dinner table this Thanksgiving as families reminisce about years gone by, traditions old and new, family members gone.

We remember our first Thanksgiving with a baby and reflect on the year that the dinner moved from Mom’s house to ours. The time we ended up with a Griswold-style turkey? That’s unforgettable, too.

These are the moments of Thanksgiving.



Spent with family or friends, as long as there’s pie

Desi Heaven used to dread Thanksgiving.

She escaped fighting among family members by hiding out and smoking cigarettes.

Throughout her 29 years, Heaven has spent the holiday in foster homes, hospital psychiatric wards and group homes for mental illness.

Some years, she didn’t have Thanksgiving at all.

Seven years ago, that all changed when Heaven found Vail Place, a nonprofit mental health services provider in the Twin Cities area. The organization helped Heaven find her first independent apartment and a job. Then the Vail Place staff asked her to return the favor by serving Thanksgiving dinner to its nearly 50 members.

“I had never cooked before,” she said. “The accomplishment at the end when everyone likes the food is amazing.”

Every year, Heaven returns to Vail Place to spend Thanksgiving with friends, people who, like her, who are living with mental illness.

“We often lose connections to our families,” she said. “The holidays are hard. You’re alone. But you don’t have to be. It doesn’t matter if you’re with relatives or not, or what the place settings look like.” She added: “As long as there’s pie.”



From hospital to home for Thanksgiving

Two months ago, Nevin Sagstetter’s family prayed he would survive.

This Thanksgiving, Sagstetter will eat like a king with an extra helping of his favorite Thanksgiving side dish, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Anything is an upgrade from the hospital food he has been eating, he said.

While competing in a cross-country meet in September, Sagstetter collapsed. For reasons still unknown, the 15-year-old went into cardiac arrest and stopped breathing.

After he was airlifted to a hospital in Minneapolis, Sagstetter’s body was cooled to limit brain damage.

“We were told he may not live,” said Nevin’s dad, Tom Sagstetter. “His recovery has been miraculous.”

In less than two months of therapy at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Sagstetter has learned to walk again, and he’s making strides with his cognitive redevelopment.

Now that he’s home, Sagstetter said he expects Thanksgiving to be just like any other year, punctuated with a trip to Fleet Farm for Black Friday.

“I just want to get back to normal,” he said. “I want to run again.”



Adding a taste of home to Thanksgiving

When Maria Guevara immigrated to the United States from Honduras 10 years ago, she served her first Thanksgiving dinner of chicken, vegetable soup, rice and pineapple cake.

“People from my country don’t cook turkey,” she said. “The flavor is … different.”

Although Thanksgiving is uniquely American, the holiday is particularly important to immigrants such as Guevara. It wasn’t long ago when she looked to this country as a land of opportunity for a better life.

“It was not good in Honduras,” she said. “Life was difficult. We were so poor.”

Thanksgiving provides Guevara with an opportunity to celebrate and give thanks for her life in the United States.

“This country is very good,” she said. “I have a different life here … more opportunities.”

Guevara has learned English and is studying for her GED at Neighborhood House in St. Paul so that she can get a better job.

She also has decided it’s probably time she learned to cook a traditional Thanksgiving turkey.

“This year I want to try,” she said. “I hear it’s good if you know how to prepare it.”



Thrice as nice: Pass the triplets, please

It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the chance to count our blessings.

Jen March and Kurt Froehlich are doing just that after learning very late in March’s pregnancy that she was having not one baby, but three.

“From then on, our whole world flipped upside down,” said March, who also has a 4-year-old son with Froehlich.

It was strangers who first suspected that March was having multiples. Then at 34 weeks, March’s midwife told her she needed to have an ultrasound because she was measuring big.

Five days later, two boys and a girl arrived. Born early but healthy, the triplets spent a few weeks in the hospital. By the time they came home, family members, friends and co-workers had come up with everything needed: cribs, diapers, meals and helping hands.

“I’ve been in disbelief at the outpouring of support,” March said. “There are really great people in the world.”

This Thanksgiving, March and Froehlich are hosting 23 relatives for Thanksgiving dinner. While grandparents, aunts and cousins take turns holding babies, March said, she’ll have a chance to sit back and marvel at her village.



Food for thought: What matters more than the meal

Thanksgiving used to be the biggest eating day of the year.

“An unbuckle-your-belt kind of a day,” said Mary Johnston, 57, of Brooklyn Park.

That changed in 2009, when Johnston had weight loss surgery at Unity Hospital in St. Paul. She lost 20 dress sizes and 160 pounds, more than half of her body weight.

With her stomach the size of a golf ball, Johnston no longer can feast on appetizers, go back for seconds or have thirds of desserts.

“I never liked to narrow my pie selection, so I’d have all of them,” she said.

Instead of seconds, Johnston now takes two yoga classes daily. In addition to counting her calories, she also counts her steps — even on Thanksgiving Day.

“Thanksgiving isn’t really about the meal,” she said. “It’s about getting together with your family and rekindling the love you have for all of the people in your life you don’t get to see.”

Johnston looks forward to this Thanksgiving’s dinner of turkey, root vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and a sliver of pumpkin pie without the crust.

It turns out that eating Thanksgiving dinner off a saucer plate is still Thanksgiving dinner.