Thanksgiving always seems to sneak up on us, sandwiched in between Halloween and Christmas it sometimes gets short shrift. But there was a time when I was a kid that holiday songs weren't background music for trick or treating. Thanksgiving was a stand-alone holiday, a truly secular day to reflect on our country's origins and the peaceful joining of two disparate tribes. It was also an occasion for the senses.
There were the smells of wonderfully rich things cooking; the pervasive scent of the sizzling turkey, and then the touch of the linen napkins at the table, the cool smoothness of the "twice a year China" and heavy silver settings. Sounds were of disparate family coming together, laughter spiking in the kitchen, grandparents fussing, cousins roughhousing and aunts catching up and gossiping. Those sounds would later be dominated by groans of overstretched stomachs and the agony of defeat noises men make around a TV football game.
I loved the sight of the Thanksgiving table as we children pushed in the swinging doors to the dining room. Only a few times each year, every leaf was in place, the white tablecloth demurely covering its curved legs. Long tapered candles flickered in candlesticks. The anticipation of the meal was everything. Thanksgiving was all about patience and the build up. Until I hosted my own first Thanksgiving dinner as a young wife, I wouldn't understand the hours of shopping, labor and preparation that were consumed in roughly 40 minutes.
But the food. Oh the food. Thanksgiving was the one holiday all year that was about taste. Gravy and rolls, carrots and brussel sprouts with garlic, mashed potatoes dotted with butter, the dark meat of the turkey and the dribbled pie filling squeezing through the lattice crust.
And there was always a moment, just before we ate, where we all held hands around the table for prayer. There were always the reluctant "touchers," the self-conscious boys and uncles who finally relaxed into the act, stilled by the feeling of family communing in one unbroken circle. "Bless this food to our use and us to they service," an economy of words from my grandfather. My dad would sometimes add an extra thought, some words and a moment of silence to take stock of our own blessings, the tender mercies in our short lives, and I'd bow my head, squinting my eyes in concentration. I'd conjure up images of family, pilgrims and Indians, about living in a land where I experienced only plenty of love and food and goodness. And then my sister would pinch my thigh to break the spell and we'd dig in.
Back then, as child in the '60s and '70s, the world was much more black and white. In the Thanksgiving of my youth, the bad guys lived behind walls -- the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall -- and there were cold wars. Americans had defined enemies and larger than life heroes. But none of them were in uniform. Boys in my neighborhood were slinking back from Vietnam sick in heart and spirit. And some didn't come home at all. There were no parades in my town, no flags in front yards in that time. We were ambivalent, opinionated and judgmental; we had watched some of the horrors on TV and in Life magazine.
I didn't think at all about the homecomings of those boys, about what kind of Thanksgiving they were experiencing, transported out of the jungle and jolted back to the low resolution of the suburbs. My prayers at night included thanks to God that I was not a boy, so that I wouldn't have to be drafted. I remember that clear as a bell.
Fast forward to this Thanksgiving, to these wars. Years and experience lend a fuller perspective. As someone who has survived some of the dings and dents that life can throw --gratitude and service have a whole different meaning around my table now. This holiday I think about the families of our injured service members gathered in their homes for the holiday meal. Without a draft, they have self-selected to sign up. They have raised their hands to go when their country asked. Having met so many of these families over the years, I can say they are a self-effacing group, humble and inspiring. They were "just doing their jobs," they'll tell you.
But while we celebrate the holiday that symbolizes that first harvest season of bounty and gratitude for life in a free land, these families have loved ones halfway around the world who have stood up to protect those freedoms. And you have to respect that, no matter what your politics or individual views. Someone you've never met is crouched in a tank overseas, or on foot patrol, or skyping home to their wife and baby. And for that we need to be grateful.
So this Thanksgiving, let's ask ourselves as we gather: Have we reached out in our communities and towns to help the service members and their families reintegrate and recover? Have we gone beyond merely waving flags at airports and including them in our prayers to really helping and assisting in meaningful ways? Have we put our thanks-giving into action as a country and as individuals?
Before we lift our forks this Thursday, we'll all grasp hands and say a prayer around my table. And we'll remind our children that despite the uncertainty of the world, the wars, the economy, the job market, there is a cornucopia of things to be thankful for. We are lucky, lucky people. We are blessed. And in the moment that our heads collectively lower, my eyes will flick around the table. I'll experience that silent recognition, no matter how tenuous and short-lived it may be, that the most important things in the world to me are gathered in one place, connected in an unbroken circle.