Grateful Dread

Brookline Tab, November 2002

I have been dreading Thanksgiving. I cannot tell a lie. It’s not that I’m ungrateful. But I believe being grateful and Thanksgiving are sometimes two very different things.

I am grateful for so many things: American freedom, Massachusetts Miracles, and Brookline. I am so very grateful to live in a town where, for example, Robert Reich won the Primary. Where Question 2, and last year, Question 4, didn’t pass. Where the anti-Iraqi war resolution did. I’m grateful for health, a roof over my head, an enjoyable and employable husband.

But Thanksgiving is another matter. Thanksgiving with my extended family can be a trial. From the moment I walk into my aunt’s house, it’s not about joy and thankfulness. It is there that I mysteriously transform into the baby of the family again, where I am thrust into games of one-upsmanship with my cousins, and where I cannot control my appetite – I mean, three kinds of pie? Come on! It’s difficult to remember that this is the holiday that originated with Plimoth Colonists and Wampanoag Indians sitting down together in peaceful acknowledgement of their coexistence, their survival, their harvest bounty. It’s a beautiful story of two groups coming together, friends, not enemies, sharing food before the hard winter.

So I checked out the Plimoth Plantation website to inspire me about the upcoming holiday. This is what one source had to say, “They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being well recovered in health & strength, and had all things in good plenty” — much the same as my own list of things I’m grateful for! So I read further, and found I was tickled by the accounts of the menu. Strange, primitive stuff it was, only some of which is recognizable: “Seethed [boiled] Lobster; a Goose, Roasted; a Turkey, Boiled; a Fricase of Coney; a Pudding of Indian Corn Meal with dried Whortleberries; a Cod, Seethed; a Brace of Ducks, Roasted; Pompion, Stewed [pumpkin!]; a Haunch of Venison, Roasted with Mustard Sauce; a Savory Pudding of Hominy; a Dish of Fruit and Holland Cheese.” Mmm, I was beginning to wish I were Mrs. John Alden.

And as I read further, my little Thanksgiving Grinch heart started to expand. Wrote Edward Winslow, Dec. 11, 1621, “They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” They were happy simply to be alive, to have food. I had forgotten, in my overly indulged middle class jadedness, just what it was really all about.

So how do I transfer some of that pure joy to the dysfunctional gathering I’ll find down in Connecticut? Do I simply close my eyes, when my cousin tries to rib me about the futility of being involved in local politics, and imagine his head is a Fricaseed Coney? Do I reach for the Pompion, stewed, and throw it in his face? Of course not. I will merely smile and remember the things we fight for in this town, the idealistic stands we take, regardless of outcome. If the Plimoth and the Wamapanoag people , two such different cultures, could come together in peace and eat that food without getting indigestion, then maybe I can put up with my cousins for another year. But somewhere in my heart, no matter what I learn about it, Thanksgiving was and will always be, among other things, about people sitting down together, trying to get along and not kill each other for another year.

Although I’m not making any promises.