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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Elusive Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

When today’s kids grow up, what will their Thanksgiving memories be of? I wonder. Probably turkey, hopefully a happy family gathered together, maybe dinner at Grandma’s house. Or maybe not. Maybe the kids will be ignored in favor of football or maybe they’ll play football and love it. I don’t know. Thanks to TV and Hallmark and the world of mass marketing we have an image of what it’s “supposed” to be: an ephemeral swirl of warm pumpkin pie, ruby cranberry sauce, turkey and mashed potatoes covered with gravy, a charming group of congenial relatives in a perfectly clean house decorated with candles, and vases of chrysanthemums. Ah yes… I've had some of those. But how often is it really like that?

I’m not saying the image of the classic Thanksgiving is a fantasy. It must have seemed very real in 1943, when Americans reacted so emotionally to the famous painting by illustrator Norman Rockwell, called “Freedom From Want”. It touched people deeply. Even if you’re young you’ve surely seen it: the view down the dining room table with happy relatives seated on each side, the older parents or grandparents at the head of the table. The hostess is lowering a gigantic platter with a huge turkey on it and her husband, in his Sunday best, looks on in his kindly way, carving tools close at hand. Sixty-five years ago, the Saturday Evening Post magazine published this painting and three others in Rockwell’s series called “The Four Freedoms." The artist was inspired by a speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to congress on January 6, 1941, while the Nazi’s dominated western Europe. The government rejected the paintings, when first approached by Rockwell. It wasn’t until they were published in the magazine and became a national sensation, that Uncle Sam decided they were pretty good after all, and made them into war bond posters that became icons of American culture. Like the illustrations of the quintessential 1950’s Santa Claus, these images are burned into my consciousness and the mood of my holidays.

I must say, I’m very lucky. As a kid on Vashon Island, I did have the big happy family, the turkey, and all the trimmings. It wasn’t perfect. I know my mother was sometimes tired and stressed out when she miraculously pulled that dinner together. We lived in an ordinary house, and maybe the silver didn’t get polished in time, or the windows washed. But I do remember wonderful aromas, cutout sugar cookies in the shape of turkeys, massive amounts of food including beautiful pies and special things like real butter and olives. At least they were special back then. Now I have butter all the time and turkey often, and too frequently indulge in olives. I’m old enough to remember when it was a big deal to get oranges in the wintertime. Now foods that used to be a treat, something else to be thankful for, are available all year and have lost their “special” status. In this age of abundant food supplies, as long as you have some money, the exclusive is more elusive. We need to try harder to make a day stand out.

This year our Thanksgiving here in Tacoma will be a very small affair, just the two of us and one good friend. None of our kids can be with us. My Dad will be at my sister’s condo, another party of three. My mother-in-law lives in an adult family home. The other two parents, I'm sad to say, are no longer with us. I lost a dear aunt, just last week. My brothers and sisters are scattered.

I’ll roast a turkey and bake a pie, but won’t go overboard on side dishes and extra sweets. I might light some candles. There won’t be any kids running around, a crowd in the kitchen to get in the way, noisy talk and laughter, and a general commotion. I’ve experienced all that, and yes, I will miss it. But the reality is that over time circumstances change.

Yet I am deeply thankful. I have people in my life to love and be loved by. I’m healthy. I have a home, good food, friends, a great dog, and my writing and music. I’m living Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and appreciate them and those who have sacrificed for them. Think of people who are spending Thanksgiving sad and alone, with loved ones fighting a war, or those sitting next to the bed of someone dying a hospital, or those are ill and in pain, or homeless. There are families who will drink too much and fight, violent and abusive in front of the kids or even hurting them, and police officers (who are missing dinner with their own families) will come to the door and arrest someone. Not a very pretty picture, is it? Sorry, but those are the realities of Thanksgiving for some people.

We can dream of the ideal version of Thanksgiving if we’ve actually had that, or grieve for what we missed if we haven’t. Or, we can alter our expectations and open ourselves to the possibility of finding new joys and creating new traditions. I see people choosing to spend the day volunteering at a food bank, or inviting someone who is lonely into their homes to share a meal. One friend of mine, whose Thanksgiving will be a quiet and uneventful day, is planning to go to church. She doesn’t expect to see many people there, but it is the way she has chosen to express and experience her own thankfulness. The important thing is to simply BE thankful, for truly, we have so much to be thankful for.

Whatever you are doing, and wherever you’ll be, spend the day with a grateful heart. If you’re grumpy, shape up. If you’re mad, get over it. Call somebody. Share. Remember those who are gone and what is important. Show your love. Laugh. Yours may not be a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving but it could still be the best one yet.

I hope you all, dear readers, have a happy Thanksgiving in your own unique way.

1 comment:

Sue Fagalde Lick said...

Excellent essay. You did a great job with this and make many good points. I'm having a hard time putting the glad face on right now, but I will remember your words and do my best.