By Mark David Blum, Esq.
It was not very long ago that my family and I served meals at the Salvation Army on Thanksgiving with the ulterior motive being that we too would enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. Those were dark days indeed. I did not eat that day because no matter how bad was my own situation, at least I had a place to call “home” and some food in the cupboards. The food belonged to those who needed it far more than did I. Also, I was too busy chatting up some of the wanderers and learning tales of great whoa and woe.
Before that year and ever since, Thanksgiving is the one day I have never let myself or my family forget. There is more to it than just the 15 lbs of fat I put on after the holiday. The holiday is more than a golden brown turkey, peas with onions, pumpkin bread, or even a heartwarming fire ‘neath the chimney. If ever there was a holiday greater than the sum of its’ parts, it is Thanksgiving.
An unusual pall has overcome me this holiday. Mostly because I am looking at my youngest who is now at the age at which I was at when my life went askew. I was but a few months older than she is now, when I dropped out of high school and made a run for it. Here I am thirty three years later and wondering when will come the day that she too twists her life up in knots. I ran for nine years before I found my footing again. When you live a life as I have, you learn that such things as having roots and belonging to a family and a community have extreme value. Thanksgiving has always been the day set aside by me to take an inventory of my life and see what if anything I have done or could still do. I worry for her, especially if she is anything like her father.
The holiday comes as no easy chore. If you love Thanksgiving, then you know it is a labor of love. It takes a special touch to make a perfect bird, perfect sides, exacting decoration, the right wines, desserts, and finger foods. Even taking the time to carve radishes and drop them into ice water for decoration is part of the process. It is an art to create a table that is not just another meal but is in its own right, a picture and presentation of the message you are sending. Over the years, I can count on one finger the number of times I messed up the bird or stuffing. Once I had a beautiful perfect bird all pretty on a platter and tripped over my own feet bringing it to the table. I believe the 3 second rule was agreed upon that day by all concerned. By no means am I an artist as I cant draw a straight line with a ruler and a compass. But there is one picture I can paint and that is a Thanksgiving meal.
Part of that picture is who sits at the table. I eat with my family 360 days a year so what is one more meal with the same faces? I love them and give many thanks they are in my life, but I have always tried to have more faces at the table that just us. After all, it takes the same work to make a 25 lb bird as it does to make a 10 lb bird. Seeing many mouths stuffed with my fine cooking is thanks enough. Having enough food to share with others is part of that for which we give thanks.
It is a routine to find folks who we consider to be homeless for the holiday. Either they are without friends or family or through chance and circumstance, end up stuck alone. One couple we know the husband works as a merchant marine and is not always around on the holidays. So we adopt them all; children, parents, and wife. This year everybody is home and they want restaurant food and I don’t do restaurant food for Thanksgiving. My mother and her clan prefer Thanksgiving in a restaurant as well and for that reason, we have spent only one Thanksgiving together. We probably will never spend another because of her choices over whom she calls “family”. But then again, that is a choice she made 40 something years ago.
This year I have been given a special gift as a guest of honor. In my darkest hours there were a few that reached out to help. One such person actually gave me a job and let me do shit work for a living wage so that I could start the process of getting back on my feet. Over time, our relationship soured and I ended up moving on to greater things like the New York State Fair. As my life has gotten better, his crashed and crashed harder than did my own. Now he himself is living in a shelter, I will do what I can to better his life. That payback starts this holiday.
I share these tales because it is important that you never forget the path upon which you have travelled to be where you are. In my heart I verily believe that we should take a pause in our lives at some point and put them in perspective of our history and future. If so quizzed, be sure you can quickly name off someone whose life is better because you lived. Nothing has to be monumental and you don’t have to give millions. Even just sharing a few slices of turkey with all the fixins, if given freely and from the heart, is one damn fine way to give thanks. I have been given the chance to give back something unique and important to someone who was there for me. Few of us ever really get that chance and it is an honor and privilege to do so.
Thanksgiving is also a day that should not end without each of us tasting a sliver of humble pie. Two reasons drive that offering. One is that there is always someone who has it better than do you, so don’t be arrogant. Secondly, everything you have and everything you know can disappear in an instant. All your security, from financial to familial, can be gone. If it has not happened to you, then you know not the meaning of what it is to lose everything you own. On this matter, I have become quite the expert and know well how fragile is the world and how it can dramatically change. Be humble on Thanksgiving and as you enjoy the bounties of your labor, do not forget how good you have it and how it can all be gone by morning.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, as the family and I troll our respective gene pools and social circles for stragglers to invite over to feast, the tales people tell of their own families are almost laughable. I have news: Everybody belongs to a dysfunctional family. Over and over, people all tell their own familial tales of misery and chaos and use it as an excuse to avoid feasting with us. If only they knew that everybody has craziness in their families. There is nothing about which to be ashamed or embarrassed. We have all learned to be normal and function well in our own worlds. When together, people tend to slip into their predetermined roles and the chaos of history repeats itself. My wish is that everybody would realize this and not be ashamed of their families. I carry a great deal of shame about how my family raised and treated me. Never do I let that come between me and living the life I want. Too many of my dearest and closest continue to surrender each year on this holiday and year after year, the event proves itself to be more miserable than expected.
Having attended three too many funerals this year and having met some very weird families, I give thanks not for my past but that I have gotten beyond the demons. It is so important to let go of the pains and wrongs and to overlook anomic behavior patterns. On Thanksgiving, be glad you have people around you who will miss you when you die.
To me that seems to be everything summed up in a sentence. This holiday is a vehicle by which you can not only give back and rejoice in your bounty, but that you can see around you those who really do give a damn whether you live or die. Your friends and family may not be what you expect or desire, but they are the ones who will sit shiva and cry when you are gone.
For this reason, I say that Thanksgiving is greater than the sum of its’ parts. Nothing can warm a home and make a meal special better than keeping the meal in context of its meaning. Look around you and give thanks.