Pink fluff. When I spotted that yummy salad, my eyes grew round as full moons. I hadn’t had that salad in years, but on Thanksgiving Day, it was an early gift from Santa.

In truth, it was Santa’s second gift that day. The first was the 35th annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner at the Old Town Hall.

Thanksgiving dawned a little bleak, a little sad. I was alone in Kearney while my children, my grandchildren, my siblings and cousins were all together far away. I’d chosen to stay here because I will be home at Christmas.

Instead, I would cover the Thanksgiving dinner for the Kearney Hub and then drive to a ranch on a dirt road northeast of Elm Creek to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with friends.

But as I headed out to Old Town Hall on a snowy Thanksgiving morning and heard forecasts of freezing rain and ice for later in the day, I began to rethink that invitation, especially the five miles of bumpy dirt road it required. The rancher had casually told me Monday that road crews never plowed dirt roads, so I’d be on my own. I have four-wheel drive, but I’m a city person, a dirt-road neophyte. Especially in the snow.

My doubts multiplied as I parked practically in a snow drift near Old Town Hall and tromped through slush across Central Avenue.

When I opened the door to Old Town Hall, I found promise. People were pouring in as if Old Town Hall were a warm lantern dangling high up in the snow and wind, inviting everyone in. People trooped in, took off coats, stamped snow off their boots and welcomed each other. Strangers became friends.

Everyone had a story. Some came here because they couldn’t get to Lincoln or Omaha for family gatherings, or family couldn’t get here, and they didn’t want to eat alone. One young couple skidded off a rural highway Tuesday evening and spent the night in the home of strangers who’d rescued them. If the strangers hadn’t found them, that couple and their two small boys would have spent 14 hours in the frigid car all night.

Volunteers who delivered meals around town reported that the roads in Kearney were all right, but “don’t try to go out of town.” I heard this over and over. As I interviewed people and heard their stories, my mind was spinning. Do I try to get to that ranch, or just eat here?

As I circulated through the crowds, I saw quite a few people I know. Stay here, they advised me. Be safe. One man told me that north-south dirt roads might be safe, but avoid east-west dirt roads because of the wind. Another man warned me that seven-foot-high drifts could be blocking rural roads and I’d be forced to turn around.

I had eagerly anticipated that turkey dinner with friends, but I trust you native Nebraskans. Better safe than sorry, I decided. I threw in the towel, set my notebook aside and got in line. Strangers chatted with me. I realized I wasn’t alone on Thanksgiving after all.

That line moved fast, and suddenly I was face to face with so much food I groan just thinking about it. As a cheery woman served me that glob of pink fluff, a salad as whimsical as a little ballerina’s tutu, I knew I was meant to be here.

Soon my plate was crammed with carrots, celery, fruit, a roll, butter, ham, turkey, corn, beans, stuffing, yams and mashed potatoes. Loaded with two heaping plates of food and a volunteer trailing me with my orange drink, I found a seat at a long table and made instant friends. Everyone talked to each other. The woman next to me was alone, too, her go-to-Omaha plans stymied by weather. She was glad to be here.

The dinner not only filled my stomach; it warmed my heart. It reminded me that when Mother Nature wrecks plans, good things are hiding around the corner. The angels who put on this feast were Thanksgiving in person.

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