Cleaning up from making biscuits is not the task I anticipated. The dread of cleaning up the scattered flour was worse than the actual chore. The entire time I gave thanks for a friend who reminded me to be thankful when I had to clean up after cooking. She was right of course. Brother Lawrence in his book, Practicing the Presence, reminds us that with each chore we do to give thanks that G-d is working for us. It’s also a very Zen concept.
Before Enlightenment, you hate your life. You chop wood and carry water, but secretly wish to get out of it all. You bear with these activities through habit and out of hopelessness, but you really wish you could do something else. In a way, you are a victim, a slave – the wood chops you and the water carries you, and there is no way to escape. This could go for eternity, it is like living in eternal hell.
After Enlightenment, you are in harmony with the universe. You realized emptiness of it all, so you see that there is nothing more important than chopping wood and carrying water. All activities are equalized, there is no preference, no discrimination. ~Andrei Volkov
This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the ability to still cook my own meals. What is cleaning up but the last task of being a baker or a cook? I often think of my grandmas who lived before fast-food restaurants. Even had they been around, their era was that of the depression. Most were glad to have a piece of bread much less be concerned about cleaning up.
Thanksgiving’s historical reality is one that can be hard once we accept what the early settlers did to Native American populations. The Native Americans gave out of their abundance and compassion. In the years that followed, the whites took their lands and most often, their lives. It is important to accept the historical reality of that period of time if we are to ever rectify it so that all may give thanks.
Growing up, the pilgrim story was told in elementary school of course. But at home, the holiday was about family and giving thanks that we had enough. My family is not a wealthy one. We were probably middle-middle class; not quite rich and not quite poor either. My sister and I never wanted for the things we needed like food and shelter.
Indeed, we were quite privileged not only because we were white, but we came from a musical family. Because of that, we were given piano lessons and dance lessons. Though, I think I overheard mom talking to another mom wishing my tomboyish walk would be tamed by dancing. Perhaps it was. I also know it could have been my tomboyish self-making up reasons I was going to have to put on a stupid leotard. All I know is how thankful I am now for those opportunities. Music has been my life. Because of the dance lessons, I know the joy of musical movement and have long loved going to a ballet.
What does this have to do with Thanksgiving one might ask? Everything. Because the way our family celebrated was to give thanks for what we were given. We started each morning out with the Macy’s Day Parade. Mom was cooking something in the kitchen for a meal at Grandma and Grandpa Whitley’s house. We went there every Thanksgiving and then to her mom and dad’s at Christmas. The day was a lazy day of cooking and family.
When we got to Grandma’s, the house was full of great smells and since we were often late because of my dad, the house was full of relatives. The Whitley clan was big, and the house was crowded. There was so much food on the table and card tables in the kitchen, that all the pies and cakes were left in Grandma’s walk-in cooler; otherwise known as the back porch.
As I think of Grandpa washing his hands on the back porch, then walking into the kitchen to pray over the meal, I can see that our Thanksgivings were much like the scene Norman Rockwell painted in his images of the holiday. Grandpa Whitley wore his good overalls though and we didn’t use a tablecloth. They were farmers, so nothing was fancy though Grandma would put on her good apron on holidays where the family came over to share a meal. One never knew which relative was going to show up at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Though they invited the entire family, some did not come. Years passed before I ever met my Uncle Cletus and I don’t ever remember meeting his kids.
Because the family was large and had big age gaps, we had many generations in that old farmhouse. The cousins you saw regularly you ran to for comfort in the crowd because there was always someone there you didn’t know. Once mom counted and said there were like 100 people there that day. It meant that some of the men decided to eat on the porches. There were plenty of chairs on each porch. My dad was always hovering near the desserts so we always knew we could find him on the back porch.
When we were young, we ate as fast as we could. Because the next thing we did on that day was to take a trip to the branch. Every cousin took the same route. You ran to the barn to see what Grandpa had in there. If Grandma had chickens, we would check to see if they had eggs. Grandma had usually gathered them already, but it was the fun of looking. Then we would trek down the tractor lanes to the branch, follow the branch up until the barbed wire fence, then walk back up the hill. We were thankful for that too. The branch was the joy of the children. It was rare that a parent went down with us, though I remember mom and dad down there with us once.
By the time we got back up to the house, the adults had cleaned up the kitchen and were falling asleep in the den. Grandpa’s antique mantel clock always tick-tocking the fed adults into sleep. When some of our college-age cousins were there, the sound of someone playing the out of tune piano in the parlor might be sounding softly through the house. Soon it was time to go home.
I don’t remember the rest of the day really. Perhaps we slept it away or watched holiday movies. That’s my guess. It was a feast day for sure, but also a rest day full of family. Sometimes we visited my Aunt Jewel who was shunned by everybody but my dad and his oldest sister.
In writing this, my memory wanted to put the day after Thanksgiving together with the feast day. The day after Thanksgiving was not a shopping day at all for my parents. It was the day we went to the Thompson’s for lunch and then to watch football. Neither of my parents liked to watch sports, but the Thompsons did. I learned to like sports by watching with my friend, Kim.
Kim was my age and her sister, Kelly, was my sister’s age. Kim and I were tomboys and Tracy and Kelly were not. In truth, I have no idea what Tracy and Kelly did on that day. All I remember is their running to Kelly’s room and closing the door while I plopped down on the floor to watch football with Kim.
When it was time to eat, the food was everything that was leftover from our families’ meals on the previous day. This was actually my favorite meal. Not because I didn’t enjoy the food cooked by Whitley relatives because I did. However, Linda (Kim’s mom) made rice and gravy that was the best I ever ate. To this day, I’ve never eaten gravy that tasted like Linda’s and I never thought to ask her how she did it.
Because of my family’s traditions on Thanksgiving weekend, the holiday has always been one of giving thanks for the gifts of food, family, and friends. There was never any talk of the pilgrims, only of the blessings of bountiful tables and blessed hands that prepared the meal. In every instance, it was the women who prepared the meals too.
This Thanksgiving, I will be sharing a meal with a friend and her husband from my church. They both live in our small mountain town. The hardest thing to deal with after my divorce was the loss of my own personal family; the family I married into. This Thanksgiving my heart rejoices to have known them and to have shared beautiful Thanksgivings with them. My ex-wife also shared some Thanksgivings with my family, though they were much smaller after my grandparents died. After the meal at my parents, we would walk down the dirt road behind mom’s house. Then, on Fridays relax and read.
My biological family and I have been at odds this year. Political alliances have kept us apart in ways we don’t address. The political and religious differences are some huge invisible wall we have not yet breached. But at times, we meet at the fence and reach hands and arms through to hug each other and say that we love one another. I’m thankful that we have at least that still. Maybe one day we can allow the love to tear down the walls. Until then, I give thanks that we are still reaching out to each other loving through the walls. My prayer is that one day, the wall will come down.
Love can build a bridge
Between your heart and mine
Love can build a bridge
Don’t you think it’s time?
Don’t you think it’s time?
Robin’s Radio Podcast
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- A Letter to Steven about Vocation