Detours and Tangents

Side trips off the straight and narrow

Thanksgiving Revisited

The Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past may actually be friendly.

Holidays are not necessarily my favorite days. I have my light-hearted side, but what one might call the ruling aspect of my personality tends toward the gloomy, if not the downright morose. This dominant side regards certain officially sanctioned celebrations with anxiety mixed with suspicion, seasoned with a generous dollop of dread.

Some holidays I can negotiate with ease. They would be those that don’t require much in the way of buoyant spirits. Think Flag Day, Arbor Day, even Labor Day. If I politely declined an invitation to a Labor Day party, who would think less of me? You would be correct if you said, in a tone of cheerful encouragement, “No one!”

Thanksgiving, however, is another kettle of fish—or should I say brine-soaked turkey? My earliest Thanksgiving memories are admittedly happy ones. My mother would spend days before the holiday polishing the silver: the turkey platter, the coffee service, the serving dishes, the flatware, and even the two impossibly tiny spoons for the two impossibly tiny glass bowls that held the salt—one bowl at either end of the table.

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She used an Irish linen tablecloth, and set that snowy field with her best china, the polished flatware, the gleaming silver serving dishes, a magical cut glass bowl for the cranberry sauce with intricate facets that twinkled in the afternoon sunlight, and special glass goblets for ice water that, along with everything else on the table, we saw only at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Our turkey was always a golden brown beauty, expertly carved by my father, and the gravy—made by my mother using giblets, drippings from the bird and flour that never turned lumpy—remains the best I have ever had. Some years, my aunt and uncle and my two cousins made the two-hour trip from Philadelphia and our families played touch football in the backyard before dinner, just like the Kennedys. They were idyllic days—the perfect Thanksgivings.

Then, just before I entered eighth grade, my parents separated. My father moved 200 miles away and, as the late summer turned first to fall and then the hushed gray of November, my fear that my mother, my brother and I would have a fatherless Thanksgiving increased day by day.

Finally, a week before the holiday, I persuaded my mother to let me call my father and ask him to come home for Thanksgiving. (“Beg” might be too strong a word, but it was close to that.) After a long, awkward conversation on the wall phone in our small kitchen, my diplomatic efforts succeeded. My father returned, we ate Thanksgiving dinner together, complete with snowy white tablecloth, gleaming silverware and golden brown turkey, and he and my mother never separated again.

Still, that one crack in the previously solid foundation of the Thanksgiving holiday might have been enough to make me skeptical about the happiness to be derived from all future Thanksgivings.

After I grew up and left home, I lived for more than a decade in Honolulu. Thanksgiving there was often a haphazard affair, in part because—to me, at least—the holiday’s fall harvest theme seemed blatantly incongruous in a land of bright sun and palm trees. One year, in protest, I cooked salmon steaks; I served them with a salad and pumpkin pie and practically dared my guests to raise objections. (Because this was Hawaii, home of the gentle aloha spirit, no one did.)

Toward the end of my Hawaii sojourn, however, my feelings about Thanksgiving underwent another sea change. For two years in a row I flew with my boyfriend from Honolulu to Maui to celebrate with his mother, his aunt, his uncle and numerous cousins at his aunt’s house in Upcountry Maui. These turned out to be lovely, memorable occasions, complete with plates piled high with turkey and all the trimmings, football on the TV and what became a family tradition as Cousin Clifford told—with measured, self-deprecating humor—the side-splitting tale of the time he got seasick on the ferry from Lanai to Maui. The moment in the story when Clifford quotes the young girl who looks at him and says in a matter-of-fact tone to her father, “He’s not gonna make it,” was guaranteed to elicit peals of laughter from the assembled guests.

Perhaps Thanksgiving’s biggest image problem is that hanging over it every year is the collective desire of the nation to have a Norman Rockwell holiday celebration—the perfect table, the perfect bird, the perfect Grandma and Grandpa, the perfect set of assembled guests. No one can live up to that ideal, but many hearts have been wrenched over the decades giving it their best try. So it was with great surprise that I read, in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine, a story by Deborah Solomon that explains that Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 painting of a family assembled for a holiday dinner actually pokes subtle fun at the holiday tradition. Describing Rockwell’s painting “Freedom From Want,” Solomon says this:

“It takes you into the dining room of a comfortable American home on Thanksgiving Day. The guests are seated at a long table, and no one is glancing at the massive roasted turkey or the gray-haired grandma solemnly carrying it—do they even know she is there? Note the man in the lower right corner, whose wry face is pressed up against the picture plane. He has the air of a larksome uncle who perhaps is visiting from New York and doesn’t entirely buy into the rituals of Thanksgiving. He seems to be saying, ‘Isn’t this all just a bit much?’ In contrast to traditional depictions of Thanksgiving dinner, which show the pre-meal as a moment of grace—heads lowered, praying hands raised to lips—Rockwell paints a Thanksgiving table at which no one is giving thanks. This, then, is the subject of his painting: not just the sanctity of American traditions, but the casualness with which Americans treat them.”

What a profound relief! If even Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving was not, on closer inspection, a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, why should I let the accumulated weight of the holiday oppress me any longer? Like Ebenezer Scrooge at his Christmas morning giddiest, this year I am resolved to bring my lightest heart to Thanksgiving and my most buoyant spirit—along with, by the way, an apple pie that I will bake myself.

I will be with family and friends and some strangers whom I expect will be friends before the day is done. We will raise a glass to those who have gone before us, and honor the Thanksgivings they created that live on in our memories. I will play the part of the larksome aunt: Doesn’t that sound like fun? I invite all readers who are also wary of this holiday to give this approach a try. Because who knows? It might be the beginning of a beautiful new tradition.

Copyright © 2013 by Susan Hooper

Raindrops and Leaves photo by Albert Herring, Staunton River (Virginia) State Park, via Wikimedia Commons

Susan Hooper, a freelance writer, is a former newspaper reporter and government press secretary.

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