FIRST CAME the non-alcoholic cocktails and iced shrimp, served in the peach silk and velvet drawing room. Then a butler rang a silver dinner bell summoning the two dozen women to the opulent, candle-lit table where Thanksgiving dinner was about to be served.
We were all strangers to one another; strangers who, nine years ago, suddenly found ourselves gathered together to celebrate this most familial of holidays.
At dinner I was seated next to a woman wearing a small, diamond tiara who, without introducing herself, told me: "I've taken exercise classes from Jane Fonda. And I spend part of every summer at a spa in Switzerland. But I always come here for Thanksgiving."
Welcome to Thanksgiving at the Greenhouse -- one of the world's poshest and most expensive health spas. Located on the outskirts of Dallas, this Rolls-Royce of spas caters to women only and usually is booked a year in advance.
Or at least that's what the voice on the other end of the phone told me when I called in August of 1982 to make a reservation for October. "I'm sorry but we could book you in for October of '83," she said. After explaining I was a reporter who was coming to write a story on the spa, she relented slightly, saying: "Well, we do have a few openings for the week of Thanksgiving."
It was not exactly how I had envisioned spending Thanksgiving Day. But what the heck, I thought. It might be interesting to see who actually chooses to spend Thanksgiving at a spa. And, besides, there were plenty more Thanksgivings in my future.
So that's how it came to pass that nine years ago on Thanksgiving night I sat next to a woman wearing a diamond tiara who -- between bites of an elegantly prepared 500-calorie turkey dinner -- told me she always spent Thanksgiving at the Greenhouse.
But wait, you're probably saying, who in goes to a spa for Thanksgiving? The short answer is: lonely people.
Some -- like the divorced, 50ish woman from Alabama whose sons were vacationing with their father -- were there trying to avoid the pain of not being with family.
Others -- like some of the single, high-powered career women I met -- were there because, as one of them put it, "It's a slow business week and the only time I can get away from the office."
And a few -- like the tiara-wearing woman -- simply traveled all the time, seldom staying anywhere for very long. Divorced with children, she described her life to me one day over a low-cal fruit frappe, ending up with this summation: "But I've had a wonderful life. I really have. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."
But all the women -- including the socialite from Houston who insisted, until almost the last moment, that she was there to rest up for the "Christmas party season back home" -- were running away, more or less, from the prospect of being alone on this most familial of holidays.
I know this because as the week wore on, the masks came off. And like girls at a slumber party or sleep-away camp, we'd sit around the potassium broth cart talking, confiding, sharing. Or late in the evening, we'd meet in the Jacuzzi or at the pool for a swim and, without even being aware of it, we'd exchange some piece or another of the life we led away from the Greenhouse.
And by and large, I wound up liking -- or at least, understanding -- many of my fellow spa guests.
Thanksgiving Day at the Greenhouse was to be the highlight of our week. The dinner was to be quite formal and elegant. And it was.
But whenever I think about that Thanksgiving dinner -- and I do each year -- the thing that stands out is how strange it all seemed. And how homesick I felt.
For if Thanksgiving is about anything, it is about family.
I remember calling home that night from the Greenhouse. Talking to my sons, I pictured what I heard going on in the background: the joyful noise of a family gathered together.
And I pictured the faces I loved: of my sons, of my mother, of family and friends. And I thought: Never again will I be away from them on Thanksgiving Day.
The irony, I suppose, is that I didn't stop to think that someday they might have to be away from me. That life would prevent some from returning home for Thanksgiving, as it has this year. And so would death.
But I will think today about all those I love -- both present and missing -- with the deepest of thanks. And maybe even, for a split second, think about the lady with the tiara and hope she is not alone.