In Other Words: Ghosts of Thanksgivings past
Thanksgiving has many tales to tell — snapshots concealed within a framework of this historic occasion. For many, the quintessential portrait is the Norman Rockwell painting, when the perfectly roasted is brought to the table where a smiling family awaits its arrival. A sense of well-being prevails 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 fallout of divorce or death that put closure on a holiday that is no longer quite as resonant because of lost connections.
Life moves in unexpected 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 luxury rarely attained. I have witnessed the homeless, crouched inside cardboard boxes on cold November Thanksgivings, as we drove to friends’ or family’s houses 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 needs while reminding me that I must not 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, which my childlike mind couldn’t quite absorb.
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 mothers’ and fathers’ 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 supersede the gaiety.
My Thanksgivings have been varied — some cozy and noisy — crowded with frivolity, while others were silent and palled with abandonment. I have experienced such occasions when my daughter spent the day 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 acceptably traditional gathering.
Life’s journeys 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 in one painting the essence of all our best dreams and hopes. I cling to that now as a measuring rod of times past and present that will pave the way to future Thanksgivings yet to be imagined and explored.
Westporter Judith Marks-White shares her humorous views monthly in the Westport News. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at judithmarks-white.com.