Thanksgiving and I have a checkered past. It is my least favorite holiday.
My dislike stems from my father’s suicide when I was 10. Occurring on a date in November that is often Thanksgiving, this determined what the rest of my childhood Thanksgivings would be like: really lousy.
My mother, siblings and I faced several possibilities for the day, none good. Do we accept relatives’ invitation to join them for the day, awkwardness prevailing as the cousins tried to figure out how to act around us? (How could they be visibly thankful when we were so visibly bereft?)
Do we stay home and try to carry on “normally,” faced with the totally un-normal (for us) lack of a father? Or do we try for an extended weekend trip to some exotic locale (like Tupelo, Miss.) in which we always landed in some truck-stop diner on T-day alongside all the other misfits?
As the years passed the relatives’ invitations ceased. Mom increasingly took to “checking out” for the entire weekend, and we became more inventive.
One year I took charge of the entire meal at the last minute, trying to commandeer my sister into mashing and chopping things while I desperately tried to figure out turkey roasting.
The next year Mom ordered a pre-cooked meal from a supermarket. Great, but when she forgot which store she had called, my brother and I spent the morning driving around the city until we finally landed at the one with our turkey, minutes before closing.
Well, you get the idea. Thanksgiving was a holiday to be endured or ignored when it wasn’t providing amusing anecdotes about yet another dysfunctional middle-class family. Then several things occurred.
A change in view
First, my children. My husband understood my “thing” about Thanksgiving. But having read Southern novels about parents’ dysfunctions passed down to the third and fourth generations, I was determined not to do that to my own kids.
It was time to grow up and be an adult in the family. My children needed a Thanksgiving Day that would not be overshadowed by my grief and angst that they had neither caused nor could understand. So I learned to cope, cook and even to laugh at some of the unintended humor of the day.
Second, “giving thanks.” I discovered the real secret to that, which is that “giving thanks” is not at all about feeling thankful but about doing it, whether you feel it or not.
Scripture tells us to give thanks to the Lord our God, not because we feel like it (and heaven knows, we, like ancient Israel, often don’t and with good reason) but because God is the source of all things and it is proper to say thank you to the one who provides our every breath.
Even Lamentations is interrupted by verses giving thanks for God’s steadfast love and mercy!
Finally, my husband. One day as I worried out loud about the outcome of a particularly nasty bit of parish life, he said, “Erma, what’s the worst that could happen?”
I started enumerating all the disasters I feared. Stopping me he repeated, “No; what is the really worst thing that could happen?” Suddenly, I understood. “That God would abandon us.” “And that can’t happen, can it?” he replied, and I agreed. “Then the worst thing can’t happen. The rest we’ll deal with.”
So here it is: I need a day to be outrageously intentional about giving thanks. It doesn’t really have anything to do with roast turkey and cornbread dressing or with having the proper composition of family members with all their mental faculties intact.
Those things are nice but not essential. What is essential is saying “Thank you.” It is important to say thanks to our Maker and Redeemer for trees I did not plant and houses I did not build, for a country I did not fight for and a congregation I did not establish, for a salvation I could not earn and a God whose promises and claim on us will not be broken.
It is also important to give thanks for the family members that continue to gather with me, at the table in our house and in my memories, and someday in the Kingdom of God, even when times are hard and tears predominate. Especially then. And I can say it no better than the words of the hymn “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” written by William Kethe several hundred years ago:
“For why? The Lord our God is good:
his mercy is forever sure;
his truth at all times firmly stood,
and shall from age to age endure.”
So go ahead and, throwing caution away, outrageously give thanks.