I have sought over time to enter my life from a place of daily, even momentary, gratitude.
Readers of my personal blog know that my theme for the year has been, “Sources of Joy.” In this past 11 months I’ve reflected on, and written about, the people, experiences, memories, events and anticipation that have helped me feel that I am surrounded by gifts daily.
It’s been a powerful experience for me, and one that has led me to develop habits of thinking about, savoring and sharing the many levels of good fortune that are there to be experienced if we are open to them.
Even with that emerging and gradually solidified sensibility, Thanksgiving stands out.
For me, and I suspect for many other people across the country, it is a time above all to be with family.
I am deeply aware that this sentiment is not universal.
One of my most memorable Thanksgivings came in the early 1990s, when I went to Plymouth Rock and heard a group of Native Americans explain what the day symbolized for them.
Far from a holiday, it was a day of invasion and violation, the beginning of a genocide that would soon devastate and deplete their ranks.
I’ve been more mindful of that part of our nation’s history since, and also have a reservoir of memories from the holiday accumulated over the course of the close to half-century I’ve been on the planet.
We’d swap visits.
One year we’d take the eight-hour trek from Rochester to Boston, and the next time they’d drive to us.
Whether we were getting caught in a rainstorm that forced us to stop short of our destination on Wednesday, attending Celtics games in which we got an “autographed” basketballs or playing epic games of Monopoly that stretched over two days, we always had meaningful and memorable adventures.
My freshman year at Stanford, Sacramento native and dorm mate Dennis Downey recognized my loneliness at being 3,000 miles away from home and invited me to join him,. We played tackle football with his buddies from Christian Brothers High School, and I caught two passes before joining his parents and a healthy portion of his 10 siblings and their families for a sumptuous feast.
After I graduated from college, I flew to visit my brother Mike in Boulder, Colorado, where he was a student. We went skiing at Arapahoe Basin. The base was an additional 5,000 feet above the Mile High City.
I didn’t fare real well in the altitude, so spent a good chunk of the day in the ski lodge before the two of us had a Chinese Thanksgiving dinner that remains one of my favorite ever.
In the years since I’ve traveled with Mom to meet my brothers in Spain in 1992 and been grateful for a refuge of American tradition in 1995 when the Paola family hosted me at their house in Durban, South Africa.
About three years ago my sister-in-law Rebecca put out a spread that would have made Martha Stewart envious and that included separate preparations for my mother to accommodate her food allergies.
During the past decade we’ve also had the great and good fortune to host meals at our home in Evanston.
In the first one, I took Mike’s advice to brine the turkey, but unfortunately did not check to notice that bird was already salted. Our guests’ politeness masked their disappointment at eating a salt lick disguised as a national meal, but just barely.
As with teaching, it generally takes about three years to work out the kinks and establish one’s rhythm.
Fortunately for me, my late mother-in-law Helen was part of my learning process.
We’d wake up early and get to work on boiling, then deshelling the chestnuts that were an integral part of the stuffing her family revered. Honed over a lifetime of work, her sturdy fingers with immaculately polished nails captured her essential blend of elegance and grit.
We’d get the stuffing ready, prepare the turkey and turn to the rest of the trimmings, working throughout the morning and early afternoon to arrange the plate with the perfect combination of green, cranberry, white and brown foods that simultaneously elicited saliva and sparked a feeling of bounty.
Dunreith and Aidan would do their part, too.
We’ve had our challenges.
In one year, our refrigerator died and my father-in-law Marty had a cardiac flareup that strained the organ that had been the subject of a septuple bypass just six years earlier.
It all worked out, though.
We got a new fridge and Marty was released with a clean bill of health, at least for the moment, in time to share the meal.
They’re both gone now.
Marty passed in March 2010. Helen followed him not even 18 months later.
We miss them a lot still, especially at holidays like today when we used to share such warmly intimate memories.
I’m working at Hoy as I write this, so we will have our celebration tomorrow.
But as I’m preparing the potatoes the way my Aunt Helen’s made them for more than 50 years and scoring the chestnuts to place in my mother-in-law’s stuffing, I’ll remember many, many Thanksgivings past.
I’ll reflect on my abundant life now.
And be grateful.
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