Pass The Thanks, Please

author.jpgLike most of us when Thanksgiving rolls around, I realize that if there was ever a time to be thankful, this is it. Make the most of it. Celebrate only matters of good fortune, health, friendships and love, and forget the rest.

It seems simple enough. “Thanksgiving. “ Say thanks and dig in.

When you’re very young, the concept of thanks is mostly one of dutiful respect and obedience, and wondering when grace will be over and the fun can begin.

I remember one year when a golden turkey was trussed and trimmed with absurdly funny paper pantaloons, awaiting orderly destruction. The plates were stacked in front of father at one end of the table: he, the carver, we the audience for his mastery of the old, bone-handled carving knife and fork set.

Soon, down the line, came my plate laden with vegetables, stuffing, turkey, and a little bit of skin, too—he knew I liked that. A perfect crater in the mashed potatoes held a lake of gravy; serene, until my spoon burst the dam and a flood mingled with the corn and green beans. Mother leaned over and said, “Eat with your fork, please”—one of her mantras.

Conversation took place on two levels, literally. I sat on a pillow, chin barely at plate height, while the adults seemed to have their heads in the chandelier, saying things I didn’t much understand.

But I knew they were happy. And I discerned that being thankful meant being happy. I was learning.

As I grew older, I wondered whom I should be thankful to. A Mysterious Force called God was evoked in a grace said with a Minnesota accent, and that was one strong possibility.

At some age, I probably thanked myself for being such a bright child that everybody liked. Ego looms large in a child’s mind. 

The years passed, I grew up and left home, got married, had children, and Thanksgiving grew more complex. At one point in my life I wondered if I could afford a Thanksgiving dinner. In other years we had friends who we knew would be alone if left uninvited—and their thanks (although not required in any way) for joining us also warmed the gathering. As our children grew, I sometimes lost track altogether of stopping for thoughts of gratitude. The sheer logistics of it all overwhelmed.

But once every few years, I remember an incident that happened on a Thanksgiving day in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, when I was a teenager visiting my grandparents’ house. (That's a picture of me as a toddler with my grandfather above, about 10 years before the story I'm about to tell.) Grandfather was watching a football game on television, and when halftime came ‘round a marching band did a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. He particularly enjoyed it and sang along. Then we all went in to dinner, which we knew would include grandmother’s famous gravy and equally famous apple pie.

At one point in the meal, grandfather said how much he liked hearing the Star Spangled Banner, and how “he never grew tired of it.”  In a way that can happen to you when you’re young and brash, I suddenly recalled hearing or reading a songwriter’s opinion that the Star Spangled Banner was a “terrible” piece of music: highs too high, lows too low, impossible for most people to sing.

I piped up and said so, making it sound like this was my own learned opinion. Grandfather looked at me sternly and I knew he was very cross. His Adam’s apple moved up and down a few times beneath his thin, chiseled face, and he started to say something, but grandmother cut him off, quickly changing the subject. I was spared, but I knew I’d done something stupid.

After dinner, he sat alone in the living room in his big chair with the books stacked to either side. I was there, too, and when the room cleared of other people for a moment, he called me to his side.

“Do you know what that song means to me, son?” he said.

“No, I guess I don’t,” I answered, ashamed.

“It is a very important piece of music. It’s my way of giving thanks that I made it through a war alive, and that I live in a great country where we are free. And it’s my way of saying thank you that you are here, too.”

I didn’t understand then what a song and surviving a war had to do with me being on the planet, but I would later.

And so today I sing the Star Spangled Banner whenever I hear it...on Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July, or in the stands waiting for the game to start...and I do it loudly, and poorly, with much gratitude.  

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  • Kristine Van Raden
    commented 2014-11-23 00:26:45 -0500
    thank you for sharing your lovely story…lessons just waiting to be learned!
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