Why Thanksgiving?

Imagine if the holiday changed from being about feasting and pride to being an uplifting celebration of life itself

Photograph by Getty Images

My mother-in-law is having her Thanksgiving Meltdown. “I hate this holiday,” Bev complains, keening back and forth at the kitchen table.

“You OK?” I ask, though I know the answer. Bev has had a terrible year. My father-in-law’s dementia has spiraled out of control. Last year, David’s mind was fuzzy, but he could follow a conversation. He could crack a joke, cut his turkey, flirt with the nurse who gives him checkups. This year, his mind is entirely gone. As Bev and I talk, my father-in-law is wandering around the house in his underwear, uncertain where he is and unable to complete a discernible sentence. On top of that, Bev’s grandson just fathered a child out of wedlock, she has pain in her legs, the economy stinks and Barack Obama is still in the White House.

“The world is going to pot,” she says (don’t even talk to her about legal marijuana). “What kind of a bozo could be thankful for this?”

“We’re alive,” I say.

“Big deal,” she says.

“It beats the alternative.”

“Oh, shut up.”

This is how Bev talks to people she loves. Life hasn’t turned out quite like she’d planned. She and David had worked their way up from dirt-poor beginnings to build a cushy, middle-class life. Bev took pride in being an ideal wife and mother, cooking a thousand dinners, scrubbing decades of floors, washing tons of laundry, ironing her family’s sheets, towels and underpants (seriously). During all that time, she’d looked forward to the late autumn of her life, reaping the rewards of her self-sacrifice in a Winnebago bound for Florida, sitting next to her healthy, retired husband.

My mother-in-law believed that if she just did everything right, God would be fair back and she could die a contented woman. But this perfect payoff was not on the cards and she has no illusions about what’s coming. How the hell can she hope to enjoy her life now or find anything to be grateful for? That’s the question hanging between us in the days a few days before Thanksgiving.

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There’s no disputing the world is a mess. Mass shootings and Ted Cruz, typhoons and Syria. Millions of post-crash Americans are still not back on their financial feet. How then is it possible, honestly, to be thankful for lives that are so imperfect? Not fake-thankful, not rationalizing (“Things could always be worse!”) but genuinely appreciative for our twisted, messy existence — disappointing sometimes, confusing often, and absent of any certainty. Thankful just to be here, full stop. Grateful for the people we love, however damaged they may be, simply because we’re in this world together and the bonds of the heart, Keats’s “holiness of the heart’s affections,” are what make this brief existence worthwhile. Is it possible to be grateful for things as they are? To feel for a single day — completely — that this is enough? That our imperfect, humble lives are plenty?

Imagine if that’s how we thought of Thanksgiving. Not as a day for self-congratulation or crowing about our American virtues, but as a time to be grateful for being itself; to pause in the midst of our hectic lives to say thanks for the chance to breathe, eat, hope and love; to pause long enough to say this is good — just this, right now — without the desire to change a thing?

Imagine if Thanksgiving changed from being a holiday about feasting and pride to being an uplifting celebration of life itself. People in struggle would no longer feel the pressure to come up with reasons for which to be thankful. It would be instead a day to practice unconditional gratitude. The focus would shift from answered prayers to a prayer for all humanity.

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Back in the kitchen, Bev is baking. I watch her leaning against the sink, kneading dough for her Sour Cream Softies, the cookies she makes every year, the ones that people come here expecting. She looks over her shoulder and sees me watching. Bev seems to be feeling a little bit better, breaking the eggs, stirring the batter. She smiles at me and shakes her head, knowing I’m feeling sentimental. This may not be a perfect day but it is the only one we have. Bev knows that as well as I do. Someday, I hope, that will be enough.