“I just wanna say, now that you’re old enough to know the truth,” I said to a grandson early in the day before we all sat down to turkey and dressing.
“What?” As in, What outrageous detail are you going to insert into my head this time? Sam barely looked at me. He had that look a teenager gets when he knows you are up to something, eyebrows cocked, chin lowered, eyes focused on a possible incoming text message, tuned to two realities, there and here.
I continued. “Those pilgrims weren’t exactly saints. They were starving. They stole food from the Indians, from their cache of food, during the starving time. And Squanto was an opportunist…”
“Oma!” Said a granddaughter as if they hadn’t heard all this before. “Sam’s not old enough to hear this.”
And so it began…Thanksgiving Day.
The house filled with familiar fragrances: a roasting turkey, boiling potatoes, lingering coffee, and…nail polish. You probably didn’t know that Thanksgiving isn’t a proper holiday in some places without the fragrance of nail polish. In the ‘K’ home, nail polish means the oldest daughter is home from Kansas University and is perched on a stool at the kitchen bar and doing her nails while plotting her Black Friday foray.
“Just remember. You’re on a budget,” said her mama. Her dad sang out, “She’s on a budget, a budget, a budget. She’s on a bu-uh-uh-uh-uh-get…”
At the very least, to prepare a thanksgiving celebration takes two days and a proclamation by George Washington. But this rite of gratitude, as we know, has become colored with mythic oral histories and generations of family brush strokes. Corn pudding. Cranberry salad. Pumpkin pie. A football game buzzing in the background. An unfinished scrabble game. A dog alert to crumbs falling from the counter. From over the river and through the woods to over the continent and through baggage claim.
William Bradford didn’t have football games and TV in mind when he established the Plymouth settlement in December 1620. In 1789 George Washington couldn’t have foreseen today’s luxurious living, its electric ovens, espresso machines, and trips to Whole Foods in automobiles. To tell the truth, Squanto was looking for an advantage when he befriended the pilgrims, so he definitely wasn’t thinking about us, couldn’t have imagined how we could google the truth about his tribal difficulties. I’m just sayin’ — Something about the proportion of myth to cumulative, epic celebration reveals how challenging simplicity can be.
Nevertheless, President Washington understood this much when he proclaimed on Thursday the 26th of November in 1789: we would have a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” We would feast and remind ourselves to be grateful. Which is exactly what happens. Churches and families invite strangers to tables. Families reunite and friends gather. Repeatedly. Historically. Faithfully.
Here, we Presbyterians and Catholics took our places, said a blessing, crossed ourselves. “Father, son, and Holy Spirit.”
Pass the mashed potatoes and gravy…Mom, is there more dressing?… Have some more turkey…
Then…The finishing touch. Going around the table so everyone could say what they were grateful for.
“I’m grateful for family,” said the dad.
“I’m grateful for how KU is going to beat UK in basketball this year,” said the KU coed.
“No way!” said the dad, a UK grad. “Not a chance!”
“I’m grateful for my brother.”
“I’m grateful for my sister.”
“I’m grateful for all of us being together,” said the mom.
And the grandmother (that’s me, the irony queen): “I’m grateful that no one reminded me of the time I backed your van into a mailbox, shattered the rear window and destroyed the rear door, glass spilling around the kids in the rear seat.”
“And she took us to Mellow Mushroom afterwards and asked us not to tell you when you called!”
“Well….they were hungry. You deserved a good night’s sleep and daylight to recover from the bad news.”
“I’m grateful she only hit a mailbox,” said the grandfather, my succinct husband, a man of few words.
My son-in-law grinned. He was probably remembering the cost of leaving his children with us, his in-laws, for a week four years ago while he and my daughter went house hunting in Omaha: $4000 out of pocket to avoid an increase in his auto insurance.
“You kids clean up and then we’ll watch a movie and have dessert.” The mom settled back to visit with her parents.
The kids scattered after clearing the table. We could heard them upstairs behaving like cavorting puppies. Pans and dishes clanked and clattered in the kitchen.
“Never-mind. I’ll do the dishes,” said the dad. Let ’em be.” Like Squanto, Jim is a man who recognizes how to gain an advantage. Sometimes, love is just that simple.