Evoking childhood memories on Thanksgiving

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Family portrait in Central Park. 11:00AM. Photo: JH.

The Thanksgiving holiday is one of the most memorable in American lives as it is the most personal, celebrated with the dinner that is ritual for millions. It always reminds me of my own history with it, down through the decades. In each life there’s a specific memory that lingers from the day. Today we are re-running a Diary on the subject published on this day ten years ago.

His Majesty’s meals shall be brought in thus: two of the guards will walk in first, then the doorkeeper, the maitre d’hotel carrying his staff, the gentleman who serves bread, the controller-general, the controller’s clerk, the squire of the kitchen, and the keeper of table settings.

— Louis XIV, House Rules, Article 21 (revised 1681).

I was intending to do a little reminding research on the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving when I accidentally came upon an essay about Louis XIV, The Sun King.

A squirrel in Central Park enjoys a Thanksgiving meal while a sparrow stops by to say hello.

Thanksgiving always evokes childhood memories for me. The little David growing up in almost meager circumstances in a little New England town where it was bare cold and grey this time of year, Louis’ way of life was something to celebrate, and be thankful for.

Ironically, all these years later big David reads that and laughs, amused by the absurdity. Abundance, I’ve come to see, tends to dull gratitude in us, and before you know it, greed is lapping on our shores. Of course, that was Louis’ ace — the absurdity of abundance. With it, long did he reign.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the past mid-century, we were inculcated in school about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock and John Alden and Priscilla Mullins and “Speak for yourself John…” I loved all of it. Hardship in living circumstances was not unfamiliar to many of us, and in the stories we read (or were read) about it, the Pilgrims’ voyage and settlement was admirable and enviably brave. In school we made posters and collages of the Thanksgiving symbols — the hat, the musket, the turkey, Squanto the Indian, Miles Standish, and the First Thanksgiving (so glad to have survived the long voyage to freedom) at what I imagined to be one large picnic table. Even a child could understand the pluck and the gratitude.

Of course all these years later (and information absorbed) I see how simple and misleading and even absurd  it was to teach many of these “stories” to ten year olds who naturally trusted in everything they were told. I also recall my family members – eight or ten of us – crowded around the dining room table which had extended by two pieces, and the abundance before us and, despite our own hardship, taking it for granted. Except for that glass of Coca-Cola or Pepsi that was only allowed on the holidays.

All these years later, I’ve also learned a bit more about that crowd known as the Pilgrims, religious zealots whose countrymen were glad to see them go and sail the Atlantic. Their influence on New England, and maybe American culture for the next three centuries, however, was profound: rules, morals, acceptable behavior, and giving thanks. We followed, preserving that stamina in myth.

In the year 2012, a lot of that is gone. Not all, but a lot. Thankfulness and gratitude is frequently missing from our thoughts, as well. Furthermore, there is increasing hardship across the world. That naturally obscures blessing and thanks to many. Is there reason to be thankful?

For the Pilgrims, fact besides myth reminds, after that first “thanksgiving,” hard times returned, and harder times followed. There was Mother Nature, along with the restive native Americans whose lands had been “requisitioned.” Plus there was the predictable distress and despair caused by endless daily hardship living off the strange land in the wild.

All that followed the first Thanksgiving. Yet they survived it, and they progressed. And continued to give Thanks. That’s the message which remains for all of us — to give thanks, and to share on this day and all days going forward.

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