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Thorns and Turkeys

There is a question going around Facebook: “True confession: what Thanksgiving food do you not eat?” The answer for me is easy, as I love it all. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and not just for the food. I love its simplicity: no presents, no glitter. Just the poignant breaking of bread with those whom you love. And, of course, the parade. For as long as I can remember, an important part of my Thanksgiving celebration has included watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The tradition started when I was a little girl, the year my great Aunt Jessie invited me over to her apartment to watch the Parade on TV and help her wrap Christmas presents. My great aunt was a larger than life figure—with cherry red lipstick and a loud cackle that startled little children. I was fascinated by her apartment and by Aunt Jessie herself— her snow white hair, the trinkets on her dresser, the oversized pearl clip-on earrings dangling from her ear lobes, her life as an old maid. I loved hearing stories of her work, her luncheons and her friends. The Thanksgiving that she invited me over was the day she taught me the art of curling ribbons for packages, and if I close my eyes, I’m right back there: snuggled up against her on that floral sofa. We were enthralled by the towering balloons and floats. “Someday I’m going to be in the crowd watching the parade,” I told Aunt Jessie. So far it has not yet happened, but there’s always next year. The same holds for joining the Rockettes: surely my day will come.

The following Thanksgiving I wanted to go back to Aunt Jessie’s to watch the parade, but couldn’t because I was sick. That’s where she got the idea that we could watch it together—over the phone. Thus started a decades long tradition, lasting until I had my own children. Each year, after breakfast, I wrapped up in my bathrobe, stretched out on the sofa and, phone cord pulled taut across the floor, talked through the parade with Aunt Jessie. My mom clanged pots and pans in the kitchen and traipsed back and forth through the den, stepping over the cord and sighing loudly. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that perhaps providing Thanksgiving dinner was hard work; for me, it was simply a delicious culinary experience laid out on Haverford china.

Now as an adult, I still love Thanksgiving and the parade (and still long to be a Rockette), although the circle of life has made me the one serving the dishes rather than waiting expectantly at the table. But I find that I love the preparation too, as I’ve come to see the cooking, the cleaning, the table setting as expressions of love and thanks. On the rim of my mother’s chipped turkey platter are the remembered fingerprints of a little girl who loved parades. Thank God for that.

This year, Thanksgiving will be different for so many of us around the country. We will no longer have to add leaves and chairs to the table to accommodate everyone, as our families distance themselves due to Covid. This is yet another holiday that has been impacted by the virus. Many of us have buried family members or friends. It’s easy to focus on what we are missing, what we have lost. It’s human nature to want to erase the unpleasant. But what about the blessings we still enjoy?

Another favorite November occasion for me is All Saints Sunday at church. Our congregation’s tradition is to announce those members who have passed away within the past year, to speak their names and ring bells for them. Yes, it’s a somber occasion, but the mention of the names and the tolling of the bells fill my heart with sweet memories for those I knew. It’s also been our tradition for congregation members to receive a rose in memory of a loved one—someone gone whose name is spoken silently on their heart. This year, due to Covid, the service was outdoor, in chilly November temperatures, and my job was to have white roses ready. It seemed an innocuous enough task, but as I trimmed the stems of six dozen roses, it occurred to me that the thorns might catch someone off-guard, so, armed with a table knife and scissors, I attempted to destem all those roses.

Two hours later, I realized the futility in my efforts. There were simply too many thorns and even the ones I managed to flatten were still sharp. As I arranged the roses in their containers, my bare feet stepped on an errant thorn and the tiniest drop of blood spilled.

The truth is that there is no way to avoid life’s thorns. We can look for them, guard against them, but they are inevitable. I cannot turn back the clock and watch the parade with childlike eyes. I can no longer enjoy the feast without knowledge of the dicing, chopping, and sautéing that went into its preparation. And we can’t always have the holiday that we want. There will always be thorns accompanying life’s most beautiful roses, but don’t we still love the bouquets?

I was so happy to hear that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will go on this year—albeit without spectators. My daughter and I will snuggle under a blanket and I’ll tell her for the hundredth time the story of her great great aunt whom she never met, the Southern lady who loved seasons and holidays and parades. My dog will be snoring nearby (and, likely, so will my husband) and that will be enough. This year, it has to be enough.

I’ll be watching—and raising my cup of coffee to the memory of dear Aunt Jessie and that little girl from long ago.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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