“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” —Albert Einstein
I believe Thanksgiving is made of memories rather than realities, and it’s not because of my age. Thanksgiving in my family, and many others, has always been about storytelling, which is probably why so many people love it. Statistics support it as the most favored holiday of all, ostensibly because it’s not a patriotic or religious symbol; although in truth, it’s both. The Huguenots and Puritans, early settlers who came to this American continent, would take exception to the claims for neutrality making Thanksgiving the most inclusive holiday we celebrate in the United States. And how amazing that we have Abraham Lincoln to thank for it. He wanted to unify divided families during the Civil War and bring the country comfort, so 1863 began our first national recognition of this unusual meal.
But Thanksgiving, as it emerged from the first harvest in 1621 with American Indians and wild turkeys on the guest list, has many time-honored anecdotes and traditions. I can see the dining room table as a powerful metaphor for memoir with all its pleasures and poignant melancholy two centuries later. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been brave enough to send my characters back to one of those menus incorporating so much possibility and failure in one common gathering. Yet, I see the potential, and I’m promising myself that my next book will have a Thanksgiving scene to highlight my characters’ challenges in the context of the people who know them in a uniquely targeted way: the family!!!
I have a picture in my mind to draw on of my father and his four brothers flanked by their wives, arranged with military precision around the Thanksgiving table at their parents’ house. It was seldom a happy occasion, as my mother told the story. My father placed at one end and his father at the other, the two super-egos would have it out on any topic that came to mind, and the other brothers and wives watched from either side like sports fans at a tennis match. I could picture that assemblage of souls, all wanting in my grandfather’s eyes, somehow enduring the family politics of the Thanksgiving table without ever speaking out—except my father, who never swallowed his pride with his meal as the others did. Those skirmishes with his father, who was an Episcopal bishop and used to adulation, respect, and winning the argument, usually ended with some religious disagreement, terminated by my grandfather’s favorite put-down: “Oh, ye of little faith!” I knew my father would have finished those visits reinforced with confidence by the battle. But the others were not.
The wives were upset and stressed, and his mother drained of whatever cheerfulness she might have started the meal with. The other brothers would have been true to their personalities, with varying degrees of sullen acceptance and quiet resignation before finally escaping the Bishop’s clutches at the end of the meal. The oldest son, about a year older than my father, was a handsome, fun-loving, semi-responsible young man who apparently relieved the pressures of being the Bishop’s first born with alcohol. I used to think he never had a chance. Unable to find his calling early on, he failed at more than one business, and the last one had to be bailed out financially by the Bishop declaring gleefully that his eldest son had been saved for the ministry; even though he’d never had that bent before. It’s where his father always wanted him to be, and it’s where he was held captive for the rest of his life. His wife, trying to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an opera singer, was also engineered off the performance stage by the Bishop. How sad, I always thought, that this couple should have led the lives he dictated rather than the ones they’d have chosen for themselves.
But it didn’t end there. Had there been a gathering around a Thanksgiving table in later years, with all the same characters aged yet still in the same universe, they would have shown how forced directions can become the best possible choices later on. My uncle who was “saved for the ministry” he initially wanted no part of became a truly empathetic and insightful clergyman who seemed to enjoy his work. He gave those with less commitment and faith a mentor and a way of belonging where they might have felt outcast at first. It wasn’t my grandfather’s idea of a calling, but having read my uncles books on the value of faith and the church in particular, I can tell he found a healthy, and maybe even happy way for himself, which is all one can ask.
And so, I think the usefulness of a Thanksgiving table to evaluate the lives around it and make the characters in a book stand out so clearly is obvious. The unhappiness of youthful failures and rearrangement of family politics can find a soul eventually excelling in a life no one could have seen at its start. I look at the characters in my latest novel, The Gilded Cage, and realize that the pressures and sadness’s the protagonists are enduring now could all turn out better than the ideal dreams they visualize in their early narratives. I guess it will take a third book to bring them around a Thanksgiving table together to appreciate how they’ve grown into their own destinies. But of course, that’s what Thanksgiving stories are aimed at, and maybe what faith is intended for, too.