Wednesday, November 23, 2011

As we gather

And present gratitude
Insures the future’s good. . .
John Greenleaf Whittier

It's a sleet-y, snowy day before Thanksgiving here on the coast of Maine. Buttery mashed potatoes have been made, the smell of pumpkin pie is coming from the oven, I'm taking a break before I make my mother's sausage stuffing. There's a fire in the stove, the house is warm, the children are napping. It's a traditional and comforting feeling here today.

(Aren't sleeping babies delicious?)

(Cozy fire today)

There have been times in my life when I have rebelled against tradition. Truly. I barely think of myself as "traditional." Yet I am going to polish my silver candlesticks until they shine, set a centerpiece of fruits and dried corn and iron my newly made napkins. Let's set the record straight. We aren't wealthy, monetarily speaking. In fact, we'd be firmly in the "99%" of Americans who generally live paycheck to paycheck, struggle with their insurance co-pays, and wonder if Santa could possibly be real because otherwise it will be a lean lean Christmas for their children. All this is very real, very depressing at times, and very uncomfortable to ponder. Here's the thing, though. I've decided that my strongest, fondest childhood holiday memories come from two things: a sense of love in a gathering and a sense of beauty and care taken with preparations.

I have wonderful memories of Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house. My grandmother had ironed her heirloom linens, set the table with her best china and silverware, even for the kids to use!, lit candles and decorated with gleaming fruits and nuts. My grandfather would be standing over the stove, stirring gravy, eating bits off the freshly-roasted turkey, inevitably cursing and probably drinking whiskey or vodka. I remember the sense of awe and delight upon coming in, being welcomed; coats would be shuffled off the spare bedroom, my grandmother would offer us gingerale in her fancy glasses, my grandfather's warm hard hand would "koosh" my head and he'd sneak us kids bits of crispy turkey skin. There would be a fire in the fireplace, Bach or Beethoven on the record player, (those who wanted to watch "the game" were relegated to an upstairs television), and there was always the sound of laughter, the tinkling of glasses and china, and the rich scent of spices, wine, and roasted meat. Looking back, I don't think my grandparents were particularly "wealthy." They were pretty typical for their generation - my grandfather had to work two or three jobs at a time, my grandmother's heirlooms were all handed down to her and she simply kept them well, took care of them, and yet wasn't afraid to use them. We used to drink out of her cut crystal and she never minded if we spilled on the tablecloth or if a glass or plate broke. The children felt just as welcome as the adults and everything was lovely, comfortable, serene and beautiful. We always, regardless of religious belief or affiliation, said some sort of blessing over our meal, holding hands in a sense of calm, security, touching a bit of the sacred, if only for a few moments. The food was always delicious - prepared with love and joy. We always had lively conversation too and lots of hugs, kisses and laughter. Our hearts, minds, and bellies would be filled to the brim upon departure.

(This is my grandmother, in the center, sometime in the 60s. I was not around then but you get the idea.)

I'd say, today, that we, The Man and I, have less "money" than my grandparents did. But this week we're going to host our own little Thanksgiving and I am realizing what I want my children to remember about the holidays. No, I don't have embroidered linens, nor matching china, but I do have a few special pieces that my grandmother handed down to me. We do have plenty of firewood, a lovely turkey from a local farm, family recipes for stuffing, pie and cranberry bread, and the desire to make the gathering special, lovely, memorable. I will set the table well, showing Blueberry how the dinner fork goes on the inside of the dessert fork, and that the butter knives' blades should point toward the plate - we may not have fancy glasses but they can go above the spoon, as my grandmother and mother taught me, just as the mismatched bread plates go above the napkins. I made the napkins myself out of pretty calico, but they can be starched and iron and treated well, as if they were heirlooms. Blueberry will help me make a centerpiece out of bits foraged from our forest. Care will be taken. No television will be blaring, no one will be without a seat of honor. The point is that my children will remember the sense of aesthetic and care and love I take in my preparations. The atmosphere of beauty and generosity is what I want them to remember. I want them to remember the table set, the faces around it; the solidity of wood with the gleam of silver and the flicker of firelight.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since
creation, and it will go on.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make
men at it, we make women.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They
laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together
once again at the table.
Joy Harjo

(Homemade dinner napkins)

(Centerpiece constructed by Mama E and Blueberry)

I never want to say to my children, "No, we don't have enough money to do that, so you be content with that paper plate." You don't need to focus on what you don't have. Thanksgiving, the very act, is to be walking in gratitude for what you do have. I have elbow grease, ingenuity and a sense of how to make something beautiful. It does matter. I don't want my children to say, "Oh, we grew up poor, we had to have Thanksgiving out of a can." There is nothing thankful about that. I refuse to embrace a spirit of meanness or want. We have all that we need, and more. And for that I rejoice. For that I set a beautiful table. For that I carefully choose my food for the feast, not based on price, but on quality. I want to flood my children's senses with loveliness. I want to teach them how to live well with the bounty they do have, rather than looking over their shoulders at others. I want to foster contentment by making what we have the best it can be. Is this an elitist attitude? No. This is good stewardship. This is showing gratitude for what you have by using it well. Using it well today, not saving it for some future that might never come. We are young now. As The Decemberists say, "But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see." I look around my home and I can count a lot of beautiful things.

Here are some things that are true. You do not have to have a lot of money to set a pretty table. You don't have to have a lot of money to dress in your nicest clothes. You don't have to have a lot of money to make delicious and healthy food well. You don't have to have a lot of money to greet people warmly. You don't have to have a lot of money to turn off the television and put on the classical music station (if that's where your tastes lie). You don't have to have a lot of money to make the children at the feast feel equal and to have them sit at "the big table." You don't have to have a lot of money to make a beautiful centerpiece - the woods abound with greenery, berries and nuts. You don't have to have a lot of money to light some candles and turn off your electric lights. You don't have to have a lot of money to linger over your meal, to make washing up fun, and to play charades or shadow puppets after pie and tea. You don't have to have a lot of money to teach the youngest ones how to make a pumpkin pie or the right amount of real butter to put into the mashed potatoes. You don't have to have a lot of money to have joy.

Benign and dozy from our gluttonies,
the candles down to stubs, defenses down,
love leaking out unguarded the way
juice dribbles from the fence when grounded
by grass stalks or a forgotten hoe,
how eloquent, how beautiful you seem!
Maxine Kumin, from "Family Reunion"

(Silver polish is probably super toxic but it works wicked good.)

History buffs will forgive my retelling of the first Thanksgiving, but wasn't it about making due with what was available? Making something out of "nothing"? The settlers, starving and whining, "Wah, wah, we're so hungry, this land sucks, there is nothing here, we have nothing to eat, what are we going to do?" The Native people saying, "Umm... look at all this! We have corn, we have cranberries, we have venison, and we'll even be nice and show you how to gather and cook this stuff into a proper feast." The settlers saying, "Whoa, look at all that is here! This is actually awesome. We thought we had squat." The Native people saying, "You just need to look around you." I want to be like the Native Americans this Thanksgiving; making and sharing from the beautiful bounty that our land gives us.

This Thanksgiving, I will ask a blessing over our meal, over our gathering, we will hold hands, we might even sing together. That's right. We will truly gather together...

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