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In Other Words / Ghosts of Thanksgivings past

Published 6:30 am, Wednesday, November 27, 2013
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Thanksgiving has many tales to tell -- subplots concealed within a stereotypical framework of this historic occasion. For many, the ideal portrait is the Norman Rockwell painting, when the turkey -- perfectly roasted -- is brought to the table where a smiling family awaits its arrival. A sense of well-being is projected as they gather round, giving thanks for the abundance of food served, and the ease their lives seemingly evoke.

"Freedom From Want" is the title that Rockwell gave to his famous painting. And yet, beneath the facade of familial frivolity lies another emotional picture, bringing to the surface a vastly different array of stories, antithetical to Rockwell's portrayal.

For many, Thanksgiving conjures up bittersweet memories -- times that were fraught with distance and separation when families were split apart -- the aftermath and fallout of divorce or death that put closure on a holiday that was no longer quite as resonant because of lost connections.

Life moves in unexpected and varied ways. For many, Thanksgiving means a soup kitchen dinner. For others, even less fortunate, simply another day where hunger can't be quelled, and a piece of bread or a paper cup of water is a need rarely attained. I have witnessed for myself the homeless, crouched inside cardboard boxes on cold Manhattan Thanksgivings as we walked to friends' or family's apartments en route to our own sumptuous dinners.

My childhood was such that I regarded and simultaneously valued Thanksgiving as I would any occasion that guaranteed my privilege and safety were protected. I grew up with parents who satisfied my wants and needs while reminding me that I mustn't take for granted that which was given so freely. It was a difficult concept to grasp when before me was a table beautifully appointed and crowded with dishes -- a dichotomy so confusing that my childlike mind couldn't quite absorb it.

As people grow into adulthood, their stories change. The family unit dissolves. Divorce means new adjustments and family dynamics are such that children often become go-betweens, navigating the familial landscape of their mother's and father's extended lives.

Thanksgiving symbolically typifies home and hearth, large dinners, blazing fires, football games, and a feeling of camaraderie that lasts until the holiday season is over. For others there is a flip-side -- the underpinnings of a less traditional approach to a day where estrangement and loneliness can prevail.

My Thanksgivings have been varied -- some cozy and noisy, crowded with frivolity, while others were silent and abandoning. I have experienced such occasions when my daughter spent time in Connecticut with her father and his relatives, while I sat at another table sans child feeling a sense of loss and separation anxiety. Conversely, on similar occasions, I imagine her father experienced the same emotional tugs. Signs of the time that circumstances thrust upon us.

When I married Mort, life resumed a more normal pattern. A blended family consisting of Lizzie and my husband's three children put Thanksgiving back on the map for me, reminiscent of a more acceptingly traditional gathering.

Life's journey and circumstances have led me along a winding path of Thanksgivings past. Now, friends and family punctuate the day, and I am appreciative for being part of a more nuclear component.The circle is complete, and holidays seem more cohesive.

This year when the turkey arrives at the table, savory and plump, I will give a nod to Norman Rockwell, who so eloquently captured the essence of all our dreams in one painting. I cling to that now as a measuring rod oftimes past and present, and those that will pave the way to future Thanksgivings yet to be imagined.

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com