From Alabama to Colombia to Alabama: A Thanksgiving Miracle

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A wonderful thing happened to my Colombian family when we came to America for Thanksgiving.

I brought my girlfriend, Adela, and her mother, Luz, and Adela’s two children, Juan Manuel, age 10, and Ana Maria, age 8. We flew into Atlanta, as all the world must, and rented a big Dodge SUV to haul luggage and shopping loot. We let Juan Manuel shop a little the first night, hoping to keep him occupied the next day with action figure superheroes as the endless miles of pine trees passed by on the highways leading to Dothan, Alabama, my home town.

On the trip down, we stopped for lunch in Columbus, Georgia, at Chef Lee’s Peking Restaurant, a half-mile or so off I-185 just before you cross the Chattahoochee into Alabama. I love this place. Koi the size of watermelon swim right under your feet beneath a glass floor. A fountain pours down a cut-glass wall. I introduced my Colombian troupe to sizzling rice soup and hot tea and fortune cookies. We left full and happy … but by the time we reached the car, we were missing something important.

I’ll come back to this.

We reached Dothan after dark, made first introductions with my family, and planned the cooking for the next day. At 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving Thursday, appetites at critical mass, we sat down around a long beautiful table and said grace.

Then we received it.

We turkeyed. We dressinged. We devil egged and lane caked and pimento cheese celereyed and baked beaned and green-bean casseroled and pecan pied. We staggered cross-eyed away from the table and didn’t eat again that day.

Here’s what we did do. The colombianos visited with my kind sisters and my rough-hewn brothers. They walked the family lands, saw restored log cabins and the tracks of wild hogs and a whitewater Charybdis where Omussee Creek and Hurricane Creek collide in the Alabama woods. We made a 90-minute drive to Panama City so folks from the high Andes could see the Gulf of Mexico for the first time and eat fry-shack shrimp.

We discovered about this time that Juan Manuel had lost his billfold.

We searched the SUV, of course. We turned the hotel upside down, went through the luggage … and went through the luggage again. Nothing.

Juanma may only be 10, but he’s sophisticated in many ways, including managing his money. He’s a child of two highly trained physicians (opthalmologists) and grandparents who practiced law in a challenging Colombian legal environment.

But he lost his billfold. It held $80 U.S., and 180,000 pesos, about $60 more. That’s serious money to lose when you’re any age … and serious trust to lose if you’re a kid.

As we headed back to Atlanta and the airport, we asked Juanma when he last remembered seeing his billfold.

At the Chinese restaurant, he answered.

A woman with a Chinese accent answered my call.

“We were in your restaurant on Wednesday,” I explained. “A red-haired American with a Colombian family. We sat at the round table in the corner. Nian, our Mexican waiter, helped us with the menu. We lost a wallet.”

“You come to dinner now? How many?” asked an inscrutable voice.

“No ma’am. We already ate there, last Wednesday. We may have lost a wallet. Did anyone there find a wallet? Brown? With PERU written on it?”

“How many?”

“We’ll stop by, but not to eat,” I explained. Then louder: “We lost a wallet.”

A pause.

“You lost wallet?”

“Yes ma’am. A brown wallet. It has exactly $80 in it, and a lot of Colombian pesos.”

“Ohhh. You lost wallet?”

“Did your waiter find a wallet? Do you have a wallet there? It belongs to a 10-year-old kid.”

“We have wallet. That a lot of money for a 10-year-old kid.”

“Yes ma’am. His father and mother gave him money to buy superhero action figures. You’ll be a superhero too, if you found his wallet.”

“We been waiting…. You stop here now? How many in party?”

“We’ll stop there in about one hour. We won’t eat. We hope you have the billfold.”

An hour later, a red-haired gringo and his Colombian family stood before Nain the Mexican waiter, and the Chinese restaurant manager, hostess, and other interested staff members. The manager grilled Juan Manuel.

“What color you wallet? What inside? What else inside? What if this belong to another boy? You must prove your wallet.”

Juanma knew the contents of his wallet intimately, sealing the deal when he described some sort of labyrinth drawing inside a secret compartment. Honestly, I got the feeling folks stopped by all the time asking for a brown wallet with PERU written on it holding exactly $80 US and all those pesos.

Anyhow, things ended well … and here’s how.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, our 10-year-old somehow dropped his billfold on the way to the car after we fed the fat koi. A fat little wallet lay there on the black asphalt as we drove away.

Some customer leaving the restaurant found the wallet. That person could have pocketed $80 and a lot of pesos, a gift from the gods. But that superhero turned around with the wallet and the money and walked back into Chef Lee’s Peking Restaurant and turned the loot over to Nain or the manager or the hostess. Then that good soul walked back over the big golden fish in the glass floor and through the ornate China-red doors and out into an honest lifetime.

Somebody sleeps well at night out there.

The restauranteurs, too, could have easily divided $80 and $60 more in untraceable Colombian currency. They didn’t. They kept the silly billfold in a drawer waiting for someone to claim it. There’s no telling how long it might have waited there if we hadn’t called. I wonder if there might be other billfolds in that drawer, one a year old, others 5 or 10 years old, with those honest Chef Lee people waiting for a day somebody walks in and asks: “Hey, I was in here a few years back and couldn’t find my billfold later and I wonder if by any chance somebody turned it in here. Brown wallet. MEXICO stamped on it.” Perhaps they said NORWAY. Or CANADA. Somewhere.

The Colombians seemed deeply impressed by this incident, and they have mentioned again and again the goodness of the people in the chain of events that made it happen. They seem to think that such a thing would be very rare in Colombia, where so many poor and desperate … or less conscientious … people jostle together in a great struggle to survive.

So this Thanksgiving my Colombian family came home with the best impression possible of the people of Columbus, Georgia, and the USA.

They formed this opinion from the deeds of an honest unknown stranger in a parking lot, an honest Mexican American who waited our table (and who seemed the most appropriate to thank with a $20 tip), a staff of honest Chinese Americans who held a wallet for half a week waiting for the lightning of goodness to strike.

Thanksgiving. What word says it better?

Photo: Asim Bharwani, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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