Giving Thanks

by | Nov 21, 2021

The pandemic has changed how we celebrate holidays, and that might be a good thing. Thanksgiving and Christmas are two holidays that can evoke strong emotions, family drama, and expectations that are all too often unrealistic or unmet.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I think of that famous 1943 Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom From Want.” The painting depicts a smiling middle class white family seated around a table covered with a white tablecloth and an abundance of food. An older (dare I say elderly?) matriarch, white apron covering her short-sleeve dress stands at the head of the table presenting a perfectly cooked brown turkey on a platter. A smiling man, presumably her husband, stands by her side, slightly behind.

Freedom From Want Norman RockwellBy the time I was born, six years after the iconic painting graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, the American public had enthusiastically embraced the painting. I doubt that many knew that Rockwell had considered destroying the painting because he felt that it would send the wrong message, appearing alongside an essay by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino immigrant, novelist, and labor organizer. Bulosan wrote about the privation and violence endured by Asian immigrants. The painting and the essay represented two vastly different American experiences.

My childhood was far from a Rockwell painting although I was fortunate to have a loving extended family that mostly accepted each other other’s prejudices, addictions, and political affiliations. We gathered most Sunday afternoons at my Grandmother (Nan to the grandchildren) Riviere’s home. We gathered together for holiday feasts and there was always plenty of hugs, love, laughter, and food. If there were disagreements or fights, I don’t remember them. I credit the grandfather I never knew for setting the tone for the family. According to my Aunt Marjorie, my grandfather would begin each day by going around the kitchen table after breakfast, telling each child that he loved him/her and kissing each good-by. The children were expected to come home in the middle of the day for the main meal together.

I was an only child, so my extended family was my family. My cousins were the brothers and sisters that did not live with me. My grandmother, Nan, and her older divorced daughter, Sara, who lived with her, were like mothers to me. During the years that my mother was hospitalized frequently and my dad worked long hours establishing his own printing business, I spent as much time at Nan’s house as I did my own home. I was lucky, and lucky enough to know that whatever might be happening in my family, I was loved.

After my dad’s death in March, 1993, I began to think about those family gatherings. My mother had died three years before and in August, 1992, I had moved back to North Carolina from Annapolis, Maryland, to be near my dad who had been diagnosed with macular degeneration. His death from lung cancer was a shock. I briefly considered moving back to my hometown to be near cousins, two remaining aunts and one uncle. They had all been so supportive during my dad’s brief illness and I missed that close family circle of love.

But I also realized that the extended family that knitted itself around me in the time of loss and grief would not continue. They all had their own families; their own lives and I had been absent from that web for many years.

When spring turned to summer, I sold my dad’s house and bought a small house in the woods on five acres in Yancey County. Filling out the mortgage application, I stared at the question asking for closest living relative.

I didn’t have one. Suddenly it became apparent that I was totally alone for the first time in my life: no spouse. No children. No siblings. No parents. Who did I list as my nearest living relative? How to choose one from among the still living relatives, all with their own families, children, siblings. So I asked the loan officer, and he said they just needed someone who would know where I was if I suddenly disappeared and skipped out on my mortgage. That was easy. My best friend in Annapolis would always know where I was, so I wrote down her name and contact information.

I was developing friends in my new community, but there was still no one to spend holidays with. As Thanksgiving approached, I realized that I could either feel sorry for myself or ask for what I wanted. I wanted my family. So, I invited the cousins, the aunts and uncle. I would have been happy if any one showed up for Thanksgiving dinner. To my surprise, most of them came to dinner, and they brought food, more food than we could all eat in a week. Once again I found myself in the middle of this big family love feast. It was such fun that I did it again the next year. And then the next.

The Thanksgiving gathering was briefly interrupted in 1997 when I married Ed Seel, in my hometown, in the church where my parents were married, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Although we were living in Germany, we came back to the states the next year to host Thanksgiving. When we moved back to the states the tradition continued for 20 years at our home in Asheville.

There are group photos from most of those Thanksgiving gatherings that show our changing family – children growing, fewer members of the older generation as the years go by, significant – and insignificant – others. We gathered them all. We loved each other and fed each other more than the food we prepared.

The pandemic has changed how we gather, how we give thanks. The extended family too has changed. The kids that came to the early gatherings are grown, most have children of their own and my cousins are grandparents. Their circles expand in different directions. I am still an only child, without siblings or children.

Pat Riviere-Seel Poet, WriterWhen Ed and I moved back to Yancey County in 2019, we hosted our Thanksgiving dinner for 19 Riviere family members. It was glorious. The house was packed with people. A neighbor’s dog made it into some of the photographs. Ed took a group photo using a tripod. We snapped photos of each family group. No one snapped pictures of me and Ed.

Last year the pandemic limited family gatherings. Ed and I spent Thanksgiving at Lake Logan, an overnight in a log cabin and dinner at a table for two separated from other tables by at least 10 feet. Family units gathered around us. We toasted each other; we gave thanks for the ones we were missing.

This year the extended family all made other plans with their families of choice. So did we. One Saturday this fall we were talking with a couple of friends at a local coffee shop when the talk turned to Thanksgiving. Turns out we all were looking for a way to celebrate, and had not come up with any good options. So, we decided to make a list of people we wanted to spend Thanksgiving with and invite them – with the only condition that everyone be fully vaccinated.

The list grew, some declined, others were added. I’m happy to be bringing people together again in our home for hugs, food, laughter, and gratitude. Even though Ed and I are both fully vaccinated and had our booster shot in October, Saturday we had a COVID-19 test. It’s a new way of showing how much we love and care about our neighbors, friends, and family.

I doubt our Thanksgiving dinner will even vaguely resemble the Rockwell painting, but we will be grateful for “Freedom from Want.” If only for a day, we will want for nothing. We will give thanks.

Thanks
by W.S. Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank yo
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

W.S. Merwin, “Thanks” from Migration: New and Selected Poems.
Copyright © 2005 by W.S. Merwin

 

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6 Comments

  1. Edison V Seel

    Wonderful poem, Honey! Looking forward to many more Thanksgivings with you!

    Reply
    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Thank you, Sweetheart. We do know how to make meaningful holidays.

      Reply
  2. Bill G

    Beautiful essay and powerful poem, thank you my friend. Once my sister noted, not meaning it in any way complimentary, that we have a photo of every turkey Mom cooked as we were growing up and most of them since. This year she is traveling from Asheville with her partner to roast the turkey for Mom (93) and Dad (95). I’ll remind her to snap a photo.

    Reply
    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Thank you, my cousin/friend. So glad that your sister and her partner will be with your parents. Wishing you and yours a happy day of thanks. And don’t forget the turkey photos. : )

      Reply
  3. Elizabeth Holden

    A very beautiful poem by Merwin and I loved hearing Pet’s memories. It was a wonderful visit into her past!

    Reply
    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Thank you, Betty! I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

      Reply

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