What Makes Life Worth Living on the Most American of All Holidays
Reflections for a day of joyful feasting and family.
November 27, 2008 - 12:00 am
I love Thanksgiving. It’s not just the food that makes this holiday special, although there are few things I find more pleasurable as life begins to recede in the rear view mirror and you realize there are more years behind you than there are ahead. A good meal enjoyed with friends and family is one of those simple pleasures that the older you get, the more you treasure. Why that is, I don’t know. There are many things about getting older that I simply don’t understand. It’s the first time I’ve done it, you know.
But I love this singular American holiday because of the memories of Thanksgivings past that of late have surfaced when I get that first whiff of roasting turkey or I hear the doorbell ring and the first guests arrive for the feast — or even when I just taste Blue Cheese dip on a chip. Remembrances triggered by some still unknown mechanism, the recollections magically stored in some deep recess of my mind unreachable unless called forth by a conscious connection to one of our marvelous human senses. It is memory that adds a layer of warmth and good cheer to the proceedings.
Sometimes bittersweet when recalling parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who are no longer with us, I can nevertheless bring them back to life in my reverie and see them exactly as they were — laughing, talking, dealing with infants, scolding toddlers, and the small, significant looks they would give their spouse. My mother insisted on inviting every relative within driving distance which made Thanksgiving dinner something akin to eating with Patton’s Third Army. Two turkeys, a literal mountain of dressing, an ocean of jello molds (my favorite being lime jello with pineapple and cottage cheese), four pies (two mince, two pumpkin), and the rest of the repast served up in equally eye popping quantities. The tables groaned in protest at the load.
What never ceased to amaze us was that everything would arrive at the table piping hot. How she could plan it so that food for 30-40 people would all be ready at the same time will remain a mystery I will go to my grave trying to unravel.
But Thanksgiving was more than being about food. It was the togetherness, the familial bonds of intimacy where family stories were told and retold, everyone laughing at the same places in the stories every year or even the same grumpy gus of an uncle putting a temporary damper on the proceedings every holiday by being deep in his cups. You knew, even at a young age, that this was what life was really all about. This is what made life worth living — an unbreakable connection with those who shared your genes or were welcomed into the sacred circle by dint of marriage and hence, love extended freely to include what otherwise would have been an outsider.
The older I got, the more I realized that not everyone came from a family that shared that kind of kinship. I imagine it is even less common today what with divorce rates what they are and family ties not massaged and tended as they once were. Indeed, the bonds that still tie me to my family were nurtured and fed as one carefully cultivates young sprouts. Dinners at relatives’ houses were a huge part of growing up in my family. In addition to the holidays, every baptism, first Communion, confirmation, wedding, funeral, and ordination, saw the 12 of us get in the old station wagon and make what seemed like the endlessly long trip into the city or some far flung suburb to renew and strengthen the family ties — a reaffirmation and reinforcement of what fills the soul with joy and makes possible a good and happy life.
This Thanksgiving finds us all a little worried, a little distracted by what is going on in our country and the world. We fret about the future. Our concern extends to our children and we wonder what kind of America they will grow up in. We’re concerned about our jobs, or our businesses, or our pension and savings.
What is there to be thankful for? For most of us, it must be the blessings and joys that being part of a family brings us and how that connection sustains us, warms us, and embraces us so that the world’s troubles are kept at bay. As long as we have each other, the storms outside of our little familial cocoon can’t really wash away anything we can’t afford to lose.
All the wealth in the world can’t buy what you will have in front of you at the Thanksgiving table today. All the security that could be granted by all the armies in the world won’t make you any safer than you will be today in the warm embrace of those whose love is given unconditionally and without artifice.
Perhaps when things are blackest, a reminder of where the light is shining brightly will bring us peace and allow us to recall why we were placed on this earth and what makes life the joyous adventure it is.