Growing up, Thanksgiving was an annual trip from our home in the southeast suburbs on180th to mom’s parents’ in the northeast suburbs on 69th. My mom, dad, brother John, Grandpa and Grandma Goodson and my Uncle Ed would crowd around the small table in a corner of the kitchen. The meal was a mix of country simplicity, my grandmother’s influence and some unpredictable flare from my grandfather. His stuffing and pumpkin pie are legendary and we still use his recipes. It was a fun, somewhat quiet day of visiting, maybe playing outside if the weather allowed.
The family tradeoff was an annual trip to southeast 76th for Christmas Eve at my dad’s parents’ home. We’d join Grandpa and Grandma Schmotzer, Uncle Virgil, Aunt Faye and our cousins David and Diane, Uncle Joe and his wife (he had quite a few over the years). The meal was in the dining room with “good” china and all that went with it. Liquor flowed before, during and after the meal. There was loud music and louder conversation. Sometimes arguments would break out and result in an early departure or two.
Christmas Day was at our house with both sets of grandparents, Uncle Ed and Mr. Gill. Mr. Gill was a friend of my grandfather. I think he was from England and he’d give my brother and me a silver dollar each year. Women wore dresses and men and boys wore white shirts and ties, and hard (or dress) shoes. I always hated hard shoes.
This rhythm was set and I thought it would always be that way. Yet by the time I finished high school, what I thought was unchangeable had begun shifting. My parents relocated and the cousins and Uncle Ed had gone to school or moved away.
Soon enough I had moved and married bringing new options with competing interests concerning holidays. For a few years, Connie and I bounced between our parental homes for the big two (Thanksgiving and Christmas). In the fifth year of our marriage, we moved to the far north of a neighboring state and soon our family grew with the addition of two sons. Increasing the complexity was my parents’ divorce and eventually stepfamilies. We now had to drive five to eight hours to visit three homes in three cities.
I am uncertain if it was a clear intentional act or something we drifted into, but about thirty years ago we made a change in how we celebrated Thanksgiving. We had a deepening friendship with a couple, Julie and Rick. Connie had met them when all three attended the same college. They had three boys and we had two. They lived near our parents. They made the drive north one year and it quickly became our new tradition.
Soon enough we had our own rhythm. They would arrive as soon as possible and stay as long as they could. Thanksgiving was days, not just one day. The boys played, shifting their interests over the years. We watched movies, talked, played games, watched football, went for neighborhood walks, cooked and ate for the duration.
We started Thanksgiving with a morning service, at the church I served as a staff member. For lunch we would volunteer at the local mission for the community Thanksgiving meal and in the later afternoon we would have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The meal always included more than the two families. Extended family and friends new and old would join the celebration. It was predictably unpredictable.
Throughout the year we looked forward to the annual get-together. Conversations of times past and plans for the next gathering frequently popped up. It was a time of rest, joy, celebration, and being, being together. Some would attend once, others for years. We’d get together with Julie and Rick at other times throughout the year, but Thanksgiving became sacred. That is until Julie died of a brain tumor in May of 2001.
With Julie gone, so much of our lives became unhinged. Nothing worked, nothing mattered. It never would be the same. Somehow Thanksgiving became this huge hole reminding us of the loss. It became a time of wondering and wandering. The very essence of faith and belief was challenged in ways we had never experienced. To be honest, by this time the older boys had begun to shift into their new adult identity and thereby new patterns, but we hadn’t noticed.
There were a couple of Thanksgivings doing anything for temporary survival. We were not going to try to keep the past tradition alive; it couldn’t continue without her. We doubted a new tradition was possible. Maybe we felt we had lost Thanksgiving and would need to accept it as a time to endure, a stark reminder of what was, what was lost and what would never be again.
But within a few years something happened. Thanksgiving celebrations returned to our home. It was different, but it became good. Julie’s youngest son brought his wife and eventually their two children. New people joined the mix. Our sons married and grandkids arrived. The house was again full and some sense of a new sacred developed. Julie was missed, but honored in our gathering and thankfulness.
Annually there are tears and laughter as we each share words of thanks around the table before the meal begins. We often rework Psalm 136 to include our own stories. There is a sense that we can endure all that life brings our way as we are fortified in such times together.
While preparing for this year’s gathering we learned that some of the next generation are making changes to begin to establish their own, new traditions. There was an initial sting. We had worked so hard to reestablish something special. We were not ready for another change.
An outside observer might tell us it was never the same way twice. Every year there were shifts. We are all different people with each new day. Watching our kids grow should have made us aware of this. The mix of people and activities was in constant flux. The reality is that Thanksgiving has always been a work in progress, shifting with seen and unseen forces. And at best we have found joy in living into the moment, whatever it looked like. Being thankful, sharing life and meals, and inviting others into the circle will always be worthwhile.
I am uncertain what the next phase will be, but I hope we will be able live into it with openness, acceptance, celebration and thankfulness.
There’s danger in heeding the demand to “just say no!”
Christians (you know, “those Christians”) love jumping on various bandwagons that affirm their convictions and prove that their clan is the right one.
The convictions generally tell us the world is bad, we are bad and they are bad. Essentially everything is bad. If we buy in, we (oops, I just lumped myself in with “them”) see so much evil it is amazing anyone gets out of bed in the morning and risks a breath. We love evidence that our list of “forbiddens” is the correct one. And we love any time the beast of culture sees the light, and agrees with us.
The problem is that our lists are usually a muddled mix of fears, discomforts and leftover things we were taught or assumed. Seems the more conservative (I know it’s a loaded word, but what else works?), the longer the list. Or maybe not.
My faith roots are deeply embedded in fundamentalism with its rules and prohibitions. In my adult years, I have had associations that allow me to drift across much, if not most, of the spectrum of American Christianity. Interestingly, I have discovered that in addition to fundamentalist conservatives, there are fundamentalist liberals who can have similarly deep prejudices. The trick is that they are often more educated and culturally savvy at disguising their prejudices. Liberals have their revised lists of evils — you know, like never voting Republican, or shopping at Wal-Mart, or avoiding TV (except PBS) and radio (except NPR), or enlarging their carbon footprint, and so on. The hate toward conservatives is another place that liberals show their true colors. For all of their so-called open-mindedness and inclusivity, they can be vicious in their assessment of conservatives (without any honest conversation along the way).
I agree that we all need to have self-control, healthy limits and reasonable boundaries. But I fear for anyone (especially me) who lives life focused on the negative. Even worse would be the life of anyone who focuses on judging the negative for others. In the name of religious purity many have missed the joy of life. Art, adventure, medicine, movies, alcohol, sex and learning have all been on someone’s bad list. And the faithful have lined up to please prophets and preachers by adopting strict lives of self-denial.
I understand that as a child I needed to learn not to run in front of cars or put my hand on the stovetop (learned this one the hard way). It takes structure to find our way in this world. But at some point we need to cross the line, become adult and start living in the dangerous world where all is possible. It’s a tough challenge, but it’s also a great adventure. I don’t need to walk a wire over Niagara Falls for an adrenaline rush. The very refusal to be guided and defined by simplistic rules and prohibitions is a risk many shy away from.
My best shot is this: if your convictions are primarily negative, you’re living a sad life. If your convictions are summed up by “supposed to,” “should” and “have to,” you’re living a sad life. If you are focused on pleasing others, you’re living a sad life. If you are driven by a list that you can’t explain or don’t understand, you’re living a sad life. If you are great at boundaries and saying “no,” but it is actually rooted in selfishness, you’re living a sad life.
Somehow we need to make peace with ourselves, this world, our faith and God. Negatives may provide a base for beginning, but life is lived in the possibilities — the messy, dangerous, beautiful, wonderful, complicated, scary, confusing and soul-feeding possibilities.
Lord, have mercy (and help me to live mercifully).