I suppose I’m not alone when I react to the word “Thanksgiving” with a mixture of dread, scorn and melancholy.
Nobody needs to tell me how wrong that is, especially here in Kansas City, the home of Hallmark Cards. Enforced optimism is a way of life in this town. Kansas Citians seem to look to Norman Rockwell illustrations as a model of normalcy.
Like other commercialized holidays, Turkey Day long ago became obligatory. It’s a day set aside for the gathering of families and tribes. Most of us have significant blessings for which to be thankful, and in this country the way to show that is to overeat and fall asleep watching a football game you don’t really care about. Some may escape to a movie theater, others may gird their loins to do retail battle on Black Friday.
Most of what we do bears little semblance to the sentiment expressed by Abraham Lincoln when he created the holiday by proclamation while the Civil War was raging.
Lincoln’s notion was a solemn “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father.” And he urged people to not only give thanks for their personal blessings but “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners and sufferers in (our) lamentable civil strife …”
Aside from Honest Abe’s command of the English language, which puts most modern presidents and White House aspirants to shame, he seemed to have this crazy idea that maybe Thanksgiving should be a quiet day of reflection, a day for people to take inventory and count the good things in their lives.
What might Abe think if he could see its current incarnation? What would he make of the relentless commercialism?
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an annual event designed to promote a department store, has become a holiday tradition that draws thousands to the streets of Manhattan and millions to their TV screens. And I have to admit to morbid fascination as I watch pop stars lip-syncing on floats and the casts of Broadway musicals performing numbers in unforgiving daylight.
In Kansas City, thousands of people converge on the Country Club Plaza, which claims the dubious distinction of being the country’s first shopping center, to watch the switching on of outdoor Christmas lights on Thanksgiving night. The NFL schedules back-to-back games in Dallas and Detroit brought to you by TV sponsors that, presumably, will include erectile dysfunction drugs. And some retailers get a jump on Black Friday by opening on Thanksgiving Day.
Commercialism aside, my skepticism about Thanksgiving began when I was a kid growing up in south Texas. Most of the food choices and trappings of the holiday are rooted in New England, but Americans everywhere, even in the flat coastal plains of Texas, go along with the established traditions of turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce. It would have made more sense for us to be eating venison stew or grouper and shrimp from the Gulf with Mexican bread baked in kilns by ranch hands.
In elementary school, a teacher one year had the class draw a Thanksgiving mural, showing Pilgrims and American Indians sitting down to a feast. Texas has no comparable historical tradition. There were no Puritans in Texas, although we had plenty of pirates, horse thieves and land-grabbers. For the most part, relations between white settlers and Indians consisted of tit-for-tat homicide.
Regardless, on Thanksgiving Day my mother would make mincemeat pies, and we’d pile into the station wagon and drive more than 60 miles to get to my grandparents’ house. There was plenty of food. The temperatures were usually balmy. Tensions between siblings and cousins rarely flared into the open.
My grandfather might fire up a cigar and launch into a monologue about dramatic moments in his legal career. My grandmother would stress about mealtime logistics. My great-grandfather, bald and stooped, would sit at one end of the table keeping his own counsel.
My family was just fractured enough to produce more than our share of eccentrics. We remain fractured to this day, and my siblings and I generally keep a safe distance from one another. Getting together for the holidays is not an attractive option for any of us.
Despite all that, when Thanksgiving approaches, it actually has the effect Abe had in mind. It prompts me to reflect on what I have to be thankful for. Turns out quite a lot.
At the top of the list is my wife, a 14-year survivor of stage 3 ovarian cancer. I often say she’s the reason I’m not living under a bridge today. Sounds like a joke, but it’s not. My stepdad, now 90 and dealing with his own cancer, is alive and kicking with a fully functioning mind. After the recent death of one of my uncles, a retired petroleum engineer who played a mean guitar, I reconnected with some of my cousins.
And I’ve been lucky in my working life. I’ve supported myself as a writer since the late 1970s. But that wouldn’t have happened if my wife and I, as newlyweds in Dallas, had not decided to move to Kansas City on a whim because we’d heard it had a good bus system.
Kansas City has been good to us, and the town suits a guy like me. It’s funky and rowdy and steeped in fascinating cultural history, and these days it’s moving up in the world in a way that takes a lot of people by surprise. The arts are booming, and the Royals are world champs. Everything is looking up.
Once a Texan, always a Texan, so I’m not prepared to call KC home-sweet-home.
But it’s close enough.