Thanksgiving back then was like all of our holidays. An effort was made but the joy was missing. As usual, the work fell to my father, who had learned that you could count on no one, which of course became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I remember smelling the tomato sauce cooking early in the morning, for there was no such thing as a feast without a pasta dish, and then he would stuff a turkey and place it in the oven to roast long enough to eradicate all possibility of salmonella. Later I might hear him washing pots and dishes, or filling a bucket to mop the floor, and there was still a salad to prepare with a dressing made of olive oil and mayonnaise.
It shames me now how I took his industry for granted, but with the peculiar adaptability of children everywhere, I learned to accept his solo bustle as normal. I didn’t consciously articulate this, but I guess I believed that everyone was doing exactly what they were supposed to do, or maybe what they had chosen to do. The world was as it was, whether I liked it or not. At the same time, I was certain it would be better for me, though I had no clue as to how I would make that happen, and I didn’t even know how arrogant this was. Don’t worry: Time would be a teacher, but that was light years away.
I got older and moved out, then developed the habit of not coming home, not even when I was near enough to make the trip with relative ease. I just knew it would be depressing, and my mechanisms for avoidance of pain were quite robust, if my sense of decency wasn’t. I managed to convince myself that it didn’t really matter if I was there or not. So I sat at other tables, cast my lot with strangers, and tried on different ways of being. The picture in my head of home was static and fixed, and I thought it would always be there in case I changed my mind. But people grew weary while I was away. Things I recalled as malfunctioning eventually snapped and broke beyond repair. And when my father died, the whole show fell apart.
We survive. The heart finds new holding places for its pain and the mind creates its muffling distractions, and you look up to see that years have fled and suddenly here you are. My remaining siblings and I were by now quite scattered geographically, our own little diaspora, but we occasionally tried for Thanksgiving reunions. These usually felt tense and forced, or at best they turned out poignant. The love was authentic, as was the desire to capture what we had lost or never had, but as my younger brother once said, the survivors of a shipwreck don’t generally get together to reminisce.
What did it matter? I had grown quite cynical about Thanksgiving anyway. It was an annual American gluttony that had nothing to do with family, even less to do with thanks. Consuming was the custom: It was time to gird one’s loins for the start of Christmas shopping; newspapers were fat with advertisements for the day-after sales. There would be four days off, but it was the worst time to travel, and the whole thing seemed especially designed to exacerbate the loneliness of anyone unattached. I imagined that stilted gatherings were happening all over the country, unable, as I was, to conceive of the possibility that some of them were genuinely joyous and celebratory. Me? I might write a small check to the Rescue Mission-a nod to my conscience-and my husband and daughter and I combine forces with my in-laws for a pleasant meal together. And this is fine. I’m not complaining.
But didn’t I sometimes sense a vacancy? It was as if something had gone missing and left a blankness in its wake. I had diluted tradition in favor of convenience. I had cut ceremony, that ancient human mainstay, out of my life.
No, that wasn’t it. The real omission had nothing to do with food or ceremony, with guests at the table or elaborate preparations. The real omission was my inattention to gratitude as the essential purpose of the day. I’m not talking about some vague sense of appreciation. I’m talking about brimming-over gratitude from the depths of the soul, an appropriate response to the life I have been given. Here was a holiday specifically intended to remind us of that-a beautiful idea-yet somehow I’d failed to put my heart into it. I was too distracted, too perfunctory, or maybe still too damaged. To pause and say thank you, after all, is to accept.
And what if all stories are, in the end, about loss? They are also about love and learning and what is still left. And what if I replay that scene of my father in the kitchen, see it as the act of love it was, and delete the part where I flagellate myself for being human? What if I try to let the memory of sacrifices and good intentions fill my heart with gratitude instead of guilt? Because the universe is singing and I want to listen for a while, and everything that happened brought me somehow to this shore.
I used to wake sometimes to the smells of someone cooking for the family I was part of.
Nothing cancels that out. And I am grateful.