By Leah S. Abrams
Thanksgiving Day. The weather itself is confused by this year’s holiday, slipping back and forth between the foggy rain I thought I wanted and bright blue patches that remind me I typically most look forward to the Thanksgiving walk, a tradition from later in life when I spent the day on the other side of the country with friends and friends’ families.
For most folks I know, this is a most difficult Thanksgiving, and I appreciate that. For me, it is precisely what I’ve always secretly longed for – nowhere to go, no people making chewing sounds and insistent on conversation (often while making the chewing sounds), no need to get out of pajamas, full control of what I eat and when in the day/evening I eat it.
The truth is that I’ve long struggled with this holiday, often referring to it as “the feast of the slaughter, American style” (as opposed to Pesach – Passover – which I tend to refer to as the same name, but “Jewy variety”). This year, I ushered in the day by a reading a little about the history and current observance of this day as the National Day of Mourning for many Native American communities, a ritual borne of peaceful protest in my home state in 1970.
For me, the history of this country’s indigenous people often feels closer to home than that of the European settlers to my home state. No matter how it may look outwardly today, including to those of my own people who think themselves so completely and safely assimilated here, our ancestors were more often those being persecuted, driven out of homelands, systematically murdered in the name of nationhood. When we lose sight of this past, we risk becoming the persecutor.
But this is, believe it or not, not a political essay. I say all of that largely to acknowledge where I’m coming from as I sit down to reflect and to express genuine gratitude for so very much, neatly described as the privilege of circumstances, of life choices made by others that have benefited me, have allowed me to live the life that I do.
Nearly forty years ago, my mother made a very brave and self-sacrificing choice and, by moving us in with my grandparents, set my life on a very different course than the one we had been on where I was learning very early on how much working like a dog, as my mother had always done, did not equate with high earnings.
I was enrolled at the elementary school up the street from my grandparents’ house that my mother and aunt before me had both attended and, when I started, the principal – Ms. Punch – was still in place and my mother couldn’t quite believe the woman was still alive. Children don’t have the best sense of age in adults, but Ms. Punch seemed very old to me who had young grandparents.
The following school year, the very old, very pasty, very short, very white-haired Ms. Punch was replaced by her precise physical opposite – the young, black, tall, not-yet-a-grey-hair-on-his-head Mr. Andrews. I learned only recently that there had actually been some controversy around this hiring decision.
To be blunt and succinct, Mr. Andrews was cool. He allowed for things like a student morning news show over the PA system and took the sixth graders on a working day field trip to his family’s farm. And he was the first person to help me truly appreciate Thanksgiving.
The truth is that I don’t recall the details of what we learned about our history, but I do remember it as somewhat more balanced than what I hear of others’ learning. After all, my suspicions of the holiday stretch back that far; no one in this town to which I’d been moved seemed entirely ignorant of the basic facts that our state’s colonial settlers had stolen the land, displacing and murdering the Native Americans “in their way.”
But I digress. We were not talking politics. We were talking appreciation.
Mr. Andrews helped me see what positives you can take from this holiday: to experience and to express gratitude; to be aware of the bounty you have, measured not by the size of your purse, but by the strength of your community; to provide for, to learn about and from one another.
This buoyant new principal introduced the all-school Thanksgiving. I haven’t a clue how he and our teachers pulled it off, but each year, we prepared for one another a Thanksgiving feast. The entire school gathered at the cafeteria tables set out in the gym and extended into the hallway where we gave thanks and broke bread. I learned to make zucchini bread and weave multi autumn colored paper placemats. For that one day, there was no pressure, no competing with one’s already-forming inner self-critic – just a day to be together.
That elementary school tradition is a lifetime past, but in the midst of pandemic lockdown earlier this year, we had a mini Zoom reunion for those of us elementary school girlfriends now living in New York and, on Thanksgiving, it is my oldest friend from that school I reach out to with holiday greetings early in my day. All of us, no matter how long goes between seeing or hearing from one another, still connected, still feeling ourselves a community. I can’t believe we don’t owe some measure of that to the spirit Mr. Andrews brought to our young lives.
When, all those years ago, my mother moved us to a suburb she herself had loathed, where I would come to feel inadequate due to a lack of financial resources held by many classmates’ families, she changed my trajectory. No matter how out of place I would feel at times over the years, I always had the sense of being part of something special, something that would fortify me.
What I maybe didn’t realize until adulthood was that I’d been welcomed into a lifelong extended family, one that, as children, had given thanks together and fed each other. We had, in short, cared for another in a way that simply would not have happened in my previous school or likely in most schools of that era.
Because of choices made on my behalf, I sat down this year to a solo Thanksgiving feast I prepared for myself, feeling surrounded by a community that goes back four decades, that over those decades has only expanded. And there is that common thread – of coming together to feed and give thanks for one another, a ritual I will always fondly associate with the arrival of the greatest elementary principal of all time.