In a little less than a week, many in America, and others around the world, will celebrate by giving thanks. You probably have your traditions – perhaps they include special foods, or sports – perhaps online shopping, or a hike, far removed from the daily routine. As we approach that day, I have been thinking about the role of thanks not only in that upcoming day, but every day – and what I hope to gain by being a better practitioner of gratitude. Perhaps you, too, have reflected upon Thanksgiving a bit more this year, after all the hurdles of recent times. There have been years for me where I questioned what it was I was supposed to be thankful for; in recent days, the gatherings of my past seem to be offering a lesson for the future; I cannot quite make it out, but perhaps together we can find some meaning to share.
I cannot tell you my first memory of Thanksgiving, as a family gathering. Some do have those “Norman Rockwell” images and memories; there were years that my family, in various configurations, tried to achieve that. Although the years of my parents being together were few, I am certain they tried to give my brother and I the “turkey and fixings and pumpkin pie” kind of meal. But, probably not with family, because in those years we were together, we lived far from any close relatives. I do, however, remember – and had to confirm with my older brother, whose recollections are a little clearer – after my parents separated, my father picking us up and driving us to his workplace for a dinner – at the Chino “Men’s rehabilitative state institute”, or, state prison, simply put. I remember driving through high, barbed wire topped automatic fences and eating in a large community room (with inmates and guards and families) – I think it was all he could afford, in those early years of separation and divorce. It wasn’t “pretty” or picture perfect – but he wanted to spend that meal with us, and that is what I choose to remember, now.
My Mom’s health issues were many, and she was not a cook (and neither am I!) But, when I was a little older, Dad remarried – a local elementary school teacher, single and older, who loved cooking (and was darn good at it!) – who prepared everything and more for Thanksgiving and just about any occasion. In time, their son was born – I was in junior high – and on occasion, a cousin or other family member might join as well. Years later, of course, both my brothers married, and had children, who joined the tradition now and then. My stepmother (who, confusingly at times, had the same first name as my Mom, creating two women with the same name in our not so large back then city) was always kind to prepare a plate for me to take home to my Mom. The other part of that tradition I remember – not so fondly – was the focus on hours and hours of football games. They seemed utterly boring and pointless to me.
In my college years, I would come home for Thanksgiving from the dorms; as I began my professional life, I often returned to those family gatherings, until a period of several years, after I moved away from my roots, when my own personal struggles led to more isolation and searching for understanding. I would sometimes spend the holidays alone, or going to see movies, or escaping for a “feast” to the “happiest place on earth” – Disneyland – where the music and energy would provide respite, briefly, from my inner uncertainties. I had long since stopped going to church – the gulf in my spirit between what I felt and what I had been taught was too wide to ignore. But, being raised as a “good church boy”, I often brought to mind the hymn that often had been sung in my childhood services – replaced later at more contemporary evangelical gatherings by “praise singers” – ever constant reminders that we “should” be thankful for our many blessings.
As a history buff, I’ve come to realize, perhaps by coincidence, how the origins of the celebration crisscrossed my journeys. More than 30 years ago, on my solo and only drive through parts of American history on the east coast, I visited the location of what is now recognized as the first Thanksgiving by colonists – in the Jamestown settlement of Virginia. And nearly two decades later, I had the opportunity, courtesy of a friend, to visit Provincetown, Massachusetts – the first landing on what became American soil by the pilgrims, seeking refuge from religious oppression. Some now see these moments in human history primarily as infringement on indigenous peoples; certainly, their lives and world were forever altered by these events. The picture books I loved in my childhood and youth, and stories of heroes, are seen differently now by many. But as I reflect on the essence of what Thanksgiving means to me, if not to all – I remember those moments on my own journey to new life; recognizing that there were many sacrifices made for what we now enjoy. And realizing that I was fortunate, indeed, to never know true hunger.
For all of us, the years of family gatherings can never last forever; my Mom spent her final 7 Thanksgivings in a care facility a short drive from our old home, where she would sit in her wheelchair sometimes outside in the sun, and the occasional visit from my brother’s family was a welcome distraction. It was during those years, cleaning her home through the paraphernalia accumulated over decades, I started my own discovery of family history through the letters, photos and mementos she had stored in forgotten drawers of her home of 40 years; my digging led to new connections, and renewed family sharing with many cousins. I remember another holiday during that period where I had asked my Dad if he was open to having me drive his cousin Bill, now a widowed gay retired hairdresser living in a trailer park in the desert, back to Corona for Thanksgiving. Dad was not open to that – after 30 or more years, he held on to his reasons for separation, and they were not to see one another again. For her final Thanksgiving in 2005, facing treatments for pancreatic cancer, my stepmother did not prepare her traditional feast; I drove her and my Dad to a Marie Callender’s for Thanksgiving buffet. She passed that winter; my Mom followed in spring 2006, and Cousin Bill in fall 2006. Dad outlived them all – he had his final Thanksgiving while living in a care facility near my younger brother, and while at a family gathering that day with both my brother’s families, he asked me to drive him back to the facility before we ate dinner together. That was the last time we were under one roof before his passing the following spring of 2007.
Those next few Thanksgivings felt very empty. It was a season – several seasons, cumulative, folding upon one another like a line of dominoes – of grief, and memory, and healing. In time, the process of working through the old, and accepting the new, opened doors in my own life to move ahead; the growth and understanding I came to embrace, through many lonely holidays, brought me to a very different – and better – place, in time. There have been many gatherings with family since then – at Thanksgiving, and more – and with friends, old and new, including one memorable Thanksgiving feast with something like 20 hungry gay men crammed into a small San Francisco home, wolfing down gourmet dishes. Like most of you reading this today, I spent Thanksgiving 2020 eating at home – happily no longer alone, but with my husband, something I never envisioned a decade before. This year, since neither of us fits the mold of being great cooks, we are looking forward to a sumptuous buffet at a restaurant, with masks suitably lowered but readily at hand.
All of these prior Thanksgivings are swirling in my memory, and those who prepared the food, and who sat with us, although not present still are nevertheless still at our table, in my heart. I will be surrounded by memories as we go through our day – bravely enduring the Macy’s “parade” from the comfort of our den, with calls to and from family and friends, and Facebook posts, and a feast where our regrets begin probably before we put down the fork and put on our masks. I can assure you, however – NO FOOTBALL! But there is a deeper lesson to be learned and shared, even if we cannot – or choose not – to be “together” on that day; a lesson of what I am coming to think of as the destination we seek to reach on a road paved with gratitude. Where does our gratitude lead us?
I am coming to understand that the “injunctions” I heard from the church school of my childhood, and the pulpit of my later years, about giving thanks, and prayers, and acknowledging our blessings – whatever your own faith or views may be – have a greater end and purpose than just rote performance. When I reflect on the many graces and gifts that have come into my life from all sorts of people, not always in moments that traditionally might have been classified as “holy” or spiritual – I am humbled. I begin to see things differently – that the practice, consistently, of giving thanks opens my heart and my awareness to a greater peace and a living hope. Not born from my intellect, but from a connection outside my own being.
For me – giving thanks broadens my perspective in a way that I find difficult to describe, but feel deeply. Acknowledging that I have been given so many good things in life helps me to accept that I can never have all the answers, never control all the outcomes, and – at least on this earth – never understand the many “whys” that echo in my soul. It reminds me of my limits, certainly – but also helps me see the many miracles, dare I say, that have visited my life – and those of my family, now and in the past. That is one of the treasures of discovering ancestry – realizing the struggles and sacrifices, joys and daring choices that my forebears took to survive and build and create, which they gave me. Childless, I can only look on my family and friends and imagine the bond that they share with the next generations, and realize that legacy is priceless, and I try in my small way to add to it with love and encouragement. Our love is woven by unseen hands into something that lasts.
The practice, the habit, the discipline of giving thanks consciously leads to many outcomes, and the discovery and awareness of deeper truths than just what gifts I have received. It leads to humility and acceptance of my own limits, and others; to a peace and faith that the things I cannot know or see will be brought together for good, in time; and to an empathy and compassion for the lives I encounter once, or often along the way – wandering, as I do, on a path that none of us fully comprehend. Developing slowly, with effort, an “attitude of gratitude” opens my heart to knowing – I have been loved, I am loved, and those around me are loved and this moment, this day – whether filled with cooking meals or watching football or practicing music or sitting by the bedside of someone otherwise alone, and wondering what lies ahead – each moment is one that I can give love. Not answers – just love. A touch, a word, a smile, in between all the traffic jams and gas lines and news of conflict and ongoing threats that barrage our awareness and try to drown out the silent, patient hope.
Whether your own life has brought you to a place where you believe there is a force out there, larger than us, who listens – or whether it is enough to realize that the power of community caring can lift us all to a better place, regardless – Thanksgiving is a day of hope, and realization, as much as celebration and remembrance. If you are with family – perhaps for the first time in a while – this could be a time for you to share and preserve your memories, histories, and lessons. They are worth celebrating, and sharing, for those who will walk past our days here. If you are alone, as I was for many years, this could be a chance to reach out to another and say, simply, I appreciate you, your caring for me, and I care about you too. What a joy it can be to find an opportunity to say that, in a brief moment, whether to a loved one or a stranger, and know it may mean the world to them, too.
My distant cousin, Susan Applegate, is an artist in rural Oregon, where our Applegate western pioneer roots were first established. Years ago, she did a painting of the “Old House” – indeed, the oldest house in original family hands, in Yoncalla – the home of my great great great grandfather, Charles and his wife Melinda. Her art showed multiple generations of family – dozens, over the many decades of life there – gathered around the fireplace, celebrating across the bonds of time. That thought – of our timeless connections, even among strangers – resonates with me as the nights start earlier and the leaves fall. Next week, I will be here in SF with Bob, feasting (and regretting) – but I will also be in that quiet now ancient home in Yoncalla, and in Denver with my grandparents I never knew, then in Corona with my parents, and also at that men’s prison in Chino, and smiling with my cousin Bill alone in Palm Springs; knowing again, somehow, all the moments of time, and life, and the echoes of their souls, laughter and love.
I invite you to join me on the path to gratitude and more; to give thanks tomorrow, and the day after – forgetting on occasion, I am sure, but returning again – in the morning quiet. Finding peace in accepting that as there have been joys and disappointments through every year of life, more lie ahead – but we will never be truly without hope, and without much for which to be grateful. And we will be reminded that those gifts have come, to know that greater love – from all the sources and all the hearts – is flowing not just to us in those moments of reflection, but through each of us, to others, like a timeless river of life.
Thank YOU for visiting! And yes, that “Black Friday” free subscription offer is active now – act quickly and you can move on to other sales!