Thanksgiving: Family story of an American holiday

By Zach Harris
Posted 11/29/19

Each year, on the fourth Thursday in November, families across the United States of America experience a mass version of amnesia that erases memories of the fourth Thursdays of previous …

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Thanksgiving: Family story of an American holiday

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Each year, on the fourth Thursday in November, families across the United States of America experience a mass version of amnesia that erases memories of the fourth Thursdays of previous Novembers.

You see, every year as the particularly American holiday of Thanksgiving approaches, visions of Norman Rockwell dinner scenes drive the planning of Thanksgiving menus, family gathering spots and travel plans.

“This year will be unique! This year will be the one everyone will remember! This one will be the one that creates the family portrait that will echo through the years in the collective family memory!”

My wife has for several years had the vision of a family Thanksgiving held at the old Harris cottage on the Outer Banks that was built in 1933 with all the amenities available for 1933. A prohibitive factor for Thanksgiving is that it falls in November when the weather turns rather cold. There is no heat in the old cottage and little in the form of insulation. However, the trending toward warmer temperatures in general led to the decision this year to take the leap. So the plan this past Thursday was for our two kids to travel: one south from Cambridge halfway down the east coast, and the other from California from one ocean to the other a continent away. And then, the invitation was accepted by all of my wife’s family, many of whom had never experienced the year 1933 in all its rustic glory.

The plan was to have the family gathered around what has always been the Harris family’s gathering table, but at a totally different time of year. It was one of those mash-ups I so love: turkey and stuffing along with surf and sand. The idea was a Norman Rockwell scene with ocean waves only about 150 yards away!

Along the way were some requests. We had to have games. The family loves those games where we form teams and have to act out answers or in some way prompt a creative response to win (all of which results in various degrees of embarrassment for those in the spotlight — the real goal of the game rather than victory). There were specific menu requests, sausage balls being the No. 1 item with an exactitude of division so intense that the piles are counted more than once to make sure no one gets more “love” than the next. And my daughter made an odd request: to dig out our old camcorder and tapes that had not been played for over a decade. In fact, it was only in the last year that I actually recovered said camcorder from a box that had been moved a couple of times along the way.

Now is the part of the story where you expect for me to tell you how it all fell apart. How the oven, barely used for most of the year by renters and vacationers, malfunctioned. It’s when I’d explain how the bomb cyclone faltered travel plans and not everyone arrived. It’s when I’d tell you we forgot the game, someone ate all the sausage balls, and after sitting fallow in a box for 15 years, the camcorder and those tapes faltered. And then the result would be the biggest family argument and bash you have ever heard of as everyone let loose with more grievances than any Festivus celebration anyone has ever even imagined! But, I’d just be creating drama out of fiction to give you an entertaining story.

The truth was still perhaps a little shy of a Norman Rockwell classic, but it has all the heroic beats of a Louis Small Jr. saga writ large. Everyone traveled safely and on time. The camcorder provided wonderfully embarrassing moments for the kids who now “adult” so well that they sometimes forget the patience that parents needed to exhibit a decade and a half earlier. The camcorder even allowed the voice of the patriarch who has not walked the earth for the couple of years to regale grandkids with stories. And even out of the blue, a beloved cousin not expected made an eight-hour trip just to surprise!

In the end, there was great food, some shared libations, but mostly the conversation of the saints forged and tempered in love. Oh, we were not the only family that tried to get together. We were not the only family that succeeded.

And in years past, we have been that family that mourned a special death, that erupted in controversy, that looked for all purposes like there was no family left at all. But the truth is, maybe during those years even more than this one, we were living the odd thing we call family. Because ultimately, whether the day of Thanksgiving is considered a success or a failure, the success of family is in the certainty that next year we will do it again, whether it was a pretty picture last year or not.

So, though I always like to point out that Thanksgiving is not in and of itself a religious holiday, it is a very pragmatic holiday that gives thanks for that which everyone can agree is of top importance to everyone: family. Whether you are related by blood, by interest or by faith, it is the people in our lives who give everything else meaning through the years. On this week in particular, it’s my hope that each of you along with all those who I hold dear can give thanks for all those who make the rest of the year worthwhile.

God may not have ordained it. In fact, it may be a day simply made up by God’s kids. But I’m pretty sure such thanksgiving certainly makes God proud!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 28 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” appears weekly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.