Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Other cultures have harvest celebrations, but the tone of an American Thanksgiving is unique to history. I drafted this essay after the September 11 terrorist attack, while the Iraq war was still young, and the Afghanistan conflict had failed to capture or kill the 911 masterminds. I meant to publish it once, on my blog, then took it down when the theme felt tired.
I have edited this work for exposition, tone, and theme annually hoping I would capture the mood of our nation as we endure this extended weekend. I rejected my work every year till this. The result is that the angst I felt over the undoing of civility the 911 attack ushered in is gone. Missing is a paragraph lamenting the loss American, Afghanistan, and Iraqi mothers must feel at wars fought over theological ideals that lack humanity. Some angst of separation is still here, hints that modern connected society lacks connection. Cleared of those old notions, the result is short, simple, and heartwarming.
Children in America cannot escape the holiday season. A series of events that culminate in a week off school between Christmas and New Years. The start of this season is the next-to-last Thursday in November. On this date, parents toss their children from bed at an early hour—for a no-school-day—and order them dressed in their Sunday best.
Growing up in a mobile home in Kansas, my bedroom was at the front of the house. I imagined it as the captain’s quarters of a great starship. The designers of the home meant it to be an entertainment room with its own wine rack and sink. The most striking feature of the room was the four bay-windows that marked the front of the mobile home. As a young star captain, I stood in front of those windows pretending they were view ports to the reaches of space, barking orders to imaginary crewmen who piloted this great ship across the cosmos. Come Thanksgiving morning no captain could sleep through his duties.
The kitchen was next to my bedroom; one in a series of rooms stacked next to another in a traditional starship layout. I learned to sleep through the clattering of dishes and the smell of fresh cooked bacon and eggs at an early age. My mother had to wake me several times for a school-day. We would lose count on holidays. “Troy get up,” was not enough. It took multiple attempts before I would stretch and kick off the covers.
The bathroom was midship, forcing me to pull on clothes before marching through the kitchen, the living room, pass my sister’s smaller room—sandwiched between the living room and a closet of equal size—to arrive at the bathroom. Brushing my teeth and washing my face were enough; a starship captain had important duties.
Back through the rooms to the kitchen for breakfast, then orders were given to use the bathroom before we left, “No stopping till Great Bend.” Then, we made the three-hour drive to my grandparent’s house.
Which grandparent was not questioned. They lived a few miles apart in western Kansas; both was the standard. A three-hour drive, A three-hour lunch, a fifteen-minute drive, a three-hour supper, then to bed. The remains of the four-day weekend were not as traumatic.
Time spent on my grandparent’s farm was a welcome retreat from the hectic life of a starship captain. Waking early did not seem as bad when you walked the cool quarter mile to retrieve Tilly and her girls from the grazing pasture. I don’t know whether the Tilly I called on those late autumn mornings was the same my mother raised, but I would like to think so. A young star captain’s sense of power grew when the black-and-white bovine, ten times his size, followed him to the barn. Tilly’s crew did not question her lead, but this was a dangerous away mission for a virgin captain; you had to pass the hog pen and its electric fence before reaching the barn. Pigs are less obedient than cows. Much later, I learned the cows were eager for milking. My command of the situation had little to do with their determined trek to the stalls.
After milking, came separation. I hauled the full buckets of milk up the hill to the wash-house where the stainless-steel separator waited. With grandad’s help, I poured milk into the funnel on top and with a great whirring, like bees trapped in a jar, the separator deposited cream from one spout and milk from another. Separation was not complete; a layer of cream clung to the milk, floating up as the milk settled. Cleaning the separator was essential. I remember each piece of stainless-steel, being smooth and warm from the effort of separation.
Sleeping late was better on the farms. When granddad returned from chores, he offered to take the grandkids for a drive in the pickup truck. Driving in pastures and fields had no minimum age limit and no yellow lines guide your course. The first time my sister drove she cranked the steering wheel to the right and giggled, “in circles we will go,” as we made rounds and rounds in the pasture.
Thanksgiving is a Puritanical celebration that gives thanks to God for a good harvest. The first celebration was by pilgrims who endured a horrible first year in the new world. They had a decent harvest with plenty of fowl and deer slain for a feast. The bounty of the first Thanksgiving and the promise of an endless frontier encouraged the greatest immigration of peoples the world has ever known.
Rituals are repeated acts that express a system of values. Thanksgiving became an American ritual when Abraham Lincoln proclamed Thanksgiving an annual holiday. Thanksgiving expresses American values, values determined by the Puritans when they learned the abundance and expanse of the new world. Thanksgiving is a celebration for tight-knit families who follow traditions, renew old ties, celebrate new babies, the building of new houses, and the attainment of dreams.
Thanksgiving had that traditional feel for me until the year my parents divorced. After the divorce, my father was bankrupt, and my mother was left with a house, a pool, both children, and a payment she could not afford. My mother managed her checkbook and her life with courage that came from faith the Puritans did not understand and had moved to a new world to escape. I lived with my mother and my father before realizing I needed a ship of my own to pilot. The support system of a young starship captain had vanished, I needed to create a new one.
Part of the divorce decree was that the equity in the house was split between the children. I used my portion to reduce my car payment and six-months rent on an apartment. I quit college; government assistance for education was not enough to afford life and school.
I worked nights at QT. I worked hard, long hours to get off the night shift, have a two-day weekend, and enough salary to make the apartment rent when it came due again. My parents each moved into their own apartments, my sister had to choose between the two. Unhappy with either she got lost in the change. The family forced together in the cramped quarters of a mobile home was separated by the desire to make our own lives.
Before Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving was a spontaneous celebration. Leaders declared a time of thanksgiving after victories in battle, or when rain came after a drought. My mother’s Thanksgiving proclamation was simple: “Thanksgiving will be at your mother’s this year. Just you and me and your sister, and some neighbors. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. I know you are working Thanksgiving Day, so we will eat early, around eleven o’clock.”
The next year, I was living with my first wife. My hours had changed; I worked through Thanksgiving’s prime time. That was OK, my mother moved Thanksgiving to the weekend. I would still have to leave early, but this gave my wife and me a chance to be with both families.
A few more years, a grandchild was added to the family and my mother invited my father to the Thanksgiving celebration. My sister’s little boy put a strain on the family that brought it back together. Like a rubber band that had been stretched to its limit, instead of breaking, which most do, this one retracted.
A Splash of Color
More years, a new career, and a second wife. The first year of our marriage my mother made the proclamation: “Thanksgiving will be at your mother’s this year and have your wife bring a relish tray. Some vegetables and dip. I am only doing the turkey this year; everyone else is bringing a side dish.”
My wife was not a vegetable eater. She asked what she should get for a relish tray. I said, “The supermarket already has them done. Pick one and we will be done.” But she insisted on doing it herself, so I made a list, suggested peppers, broccoli, carrots, and I would make the dip.
She came home with grocery sacks full of vegetables; the Puritans didn’t have abundance like this. She spent most of Wednesday night cleaning and chopping, cleaning and chopping, cleaning and chopping. I made the dip in a couple of minutes, asked if I could help, suggested we may have a bit much.
When she finished, we had two large disks full to the edges with broccoli, carrots, radishes, cauliflower, and several colors of peppers. I made room in the fridge for the two saucers of vegetarianism. Between them, they accommodated half the refrigerator. I inquired about the peppers, “Why so many?”
“They add a splash of color,” she said.
The next day we left for my mother’s house, across town, no three-hour drives. We put the relish trays in the back of the Jeep. The suspension gave slightly under the weight.
My mother had married again and his children with their husbands and wives and girlfriends and children, plus my father and his friends and mother, and my sister with her significant other and her son, than myself and Gianna; the simple celebration had become a feast.
When my wife and I arrived, carrying the two black disks with their plastic covers and the weight of abundance, there was a moment of silence. My mother spoke first. “Well, that is a lot of vegetables. I think you might have overdone it, but better to have enough than not.”
My sister said, “Don’t worry about it you can take them to work tomorrow.”
Everyone had a laugh, and the crowd gathered round the first of the trays. I gave the other tray a room to itself. Everyone felt a duty to eat as much as possible from the first tray, so when we lined up for the buffet of turkey and stuffing, we stopped at the relish tray for a reload of dip and veggies.
With lunch finished, the crowd split into groups; playing video games, others played board games, others watched football.
“Whew! that is really a hot pepper. O’ my! Get me an iced tea!” We turned to sound of distress. My father had teared up, a red stain formed around his lips.
The hotness of peppers is measured in Scoville units. A Scoville is a measure of capsaicin in the pepper. Capsaicin is the chemical that makes peppers hot. The hottest pepper on record is the Habanero rated at 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units. How everyone had avoided the colorful peppers spread around the relish tray was an unsolved mystery. My father in tears from a pepper my wife had chosen for its color is funny. My sister and I laughed so hard we cried. My father grabbed another pepper, covered it in dip, “What peppers did you put on this thing?” he asked before biting into it. Capsaicin is addictive.
“I don’t know, I just chose them for their color.”
“Wow, those orange ones are really hot. I just picked it up and put the whole thing my mouth, I had no idea what I was getting into.” He said as he dipped another orange pepper. The red hue around his lips had grown, he looked like a clown.
My sister, now unable to speak, pocketed one of the orange peppers for later. When my father was not looking, she rubbed the seed-pod against his ice-tea straw. “I think that is so funny,” she said looking at me, “you should bring the relish tray more often.”
As the day progressed, the heat inducing capsaicin of the peppers transferred to the vegetables. I suspect my sister rubbed peppers and vegetables together while no one was looking. I suggested bringing out the second relish tray and people started leaving.
America’s Thanksgiving has become about as thankful as those peppers. Walmart is the number one employer in twenty-three of the fifty states. Retail and service industries take the number two and three spots across the nation. That means the traditional four-day holiday weekend is not available to most workers of the union. Most Americans manage their checkbook with the same courage and faith of my mother. Courage, because financial and personal disaster is one missed paycheck away and faith because family is still more important than a paycheck.
“Thanksgiving will be at your mothers this year.” How many children, how many adults, around this globe do not hear those words? How many families feel the buzzing of separation instead of the warm embrace of a holiday? Bitterness over money, religion, and politics ensure the separation is more complete than milk and cream.
The proclamation came again this year: Thanksgiving will be at my mother’s. She doesn’t have to call; we know where our celebration of abundance will take place. Thanksgiving is my mother, she earned it with faith and courage.