As another Thanksgiving approaches, I begin to reminisce, and I recall what that special day meant to me as a child growing up in Amsterdam, in upstate New York. Various memories come to mind.
First, I remember the day fondly not only because it was a day off from school but also because we didn’t have to go to church. Unlike Christmas or New Year’s Day or Easter, when we had to get up, shower, and dress in our good clothes, we could actually sleep in on Thanksgiving. Later, we came downstairs in our pajamas to watch the Macy’s Parade on television. We might even be allowed to eat our Frosted Flakes or Sugar Smacks while sitting on the couch.
Next, we would attend the Turkey Bowl. During the early 1960’s, this Amsterdam tradition was, essentially, the Super Bowl of our youth football league. Though I was not playing football at that point, I always attended the game because some of my friends played, and three of my sisters participated as majorettes during the halftime show. My memory may be colored by nostalgia, but I recollect that the day was always classically autumn: a bit chilly with partial sunshine and the last leaves of the season drifting downward and crunching underfoot.
When the game ended, we returned home for our customary Thanksgiving meal: turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, dressing, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and some green vegetable that I would try to secretly transfer to one of my sister’s plates. I usually succeeded, too, because our Thanksgiving meal was one of the few times all year when we all closed our eyes, bowed our heads, and recited a prayer before the meal.
After the meal, and after even I had helped to clear the table and wash the dishes, we headed out to visit relatives: initially to the West End of town and later to the East End. We visited my mother’s family first, and there, with our Irish cousins, we were expected to sit still and behave, be seen but not heard, If we behaved, we might get a piece of chocolate. If we didn’t, well that wasn’t even a possibility.
Eventually, after an hour or so, we departed Caroline Street and headed down Route 5 toward Sweeney Street, about two miles away. As we drove in the darkness of early evening, I admired the downtown Christmas decorations overhead. These silvery garlands were like loving arms reaching down from heaven, reminding us that the celebration for the birth of Christ would soon follow.
When we arrived at my father’s homestead in the East End, the chaos was usually well underway. These Italian relatives were all loud and full of laughter, and the house was jam packed with noise: the uncles telling stories in the kitchen, the aunts sipping coffee in the dining room, and everyone else lounging in the living room with the television blaring and the kids running wildly throughout the house.
As kids, of course, we couldn’t appreciate the love that surrounded us in our extended families. For not until we spend our first Thanksgiving away from Mom and Dad do we really give thanks for what they have done for us.
My first Thanksgiving away occurred after I graduated from college and volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. There, I spent the day in the warm sunshine, swimming and playing volleyball with other American Volunteers in training, a striking contrast from the chilly November back home. I have to admit I had a good time that day with my new friends, but the rice and beans and fried bananas that served as our Thanksgiving meal did not quite measure up to the Norman Rockwell holidays and family gatherings that I remembered.
Over 40 years have passed since my first Thanksgiving away, and during that time, many beloved family members have passed on: Mom and Dad, my sister Peggy, and our daughter Maria among others. So when we gather this week, we do so not as children who are totally oblivious to the beauty and the blessings that surround us, but, instead, as adults who are intensely aware of the fragile thread that is our life here on earth. Thus, as we bow our heads to give thanks this Thursday, may we all be grateful and appreciative not only for the food but also for every breath and for every person in our lives.