11/21/12: A day of memories and gratitude

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

AS A CHILD, my understanding of Thanksgiving revolved around some vague notion of Pilgrims, Indians and food — admittedly, more of the last than the first two.

If we were taught that Spaniards held a thanksgiving celebration in Texas in May 1541 or that settlers in Jamestown held a thanksgiving service in the spring of 1610, I can only conclude I was absent that day — every year. It was all about the colonists in Plymouth.

In those days, construction paper, crayons and Elmer’s glue were about the extent of our art supplies. Naturally, we used them to make hats, feathers, turkeys and maize. Our “art” projects found their way home, to be taped to the refrigerator or on a window or door for a few days.

School taught us that the Pilgrims and Indians (Native American was not a part of our vocabulary then) shared a huge meal. That tied in quite nicely with the large meal my family enjoyed. It was, by far, the meal I most looked forward to all year.

The variety of food that my mother prepared was unrivaled. I can still taste her homemade yeast rolls, fresh from the oven, dripping with butter. My father, a minister, led us in a prayer of thanksgiving, but this kid barely heard it, just wanting to tear into the turkey, dressing and sweet potatoes.

At some point, though, the idea of being thankful took hold. I think it probably happened in 1973, when my family held its first Thanksgiving dinner without my father, who had died just two and a half months earlier. I wish I could say that I remembered it, but I don’t. The loss of my beloved Daddy was too much.

I do remember Christmas that year, and by that time, I had already come to the point of being grateful for so many things around me.

As I look to tomorrow, I am grateful that my father collected nearly all of his weekly newspaper columns, giving me the opportunity to learn more about the man he was and providing me guidance on the woman I should be.

“Maybe sometime each of us needs to go off somewhere and count our blessings. Then we will realize that we are not nearly as bad off as we would like to make ourselves believe,” he wrote in one from November 1958. I am grateful that I can share his words with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren he never knew.

I am grateful for my mother. I learned how to be strong in the face of adversity by watching her deal with her own. And how to make her mother’s sweet potato pie.

I am grateful for that eighth grade math teacher, my friend of nearly 40 years, who not only saw me through that fall of 1973 but continues to be an inspiration.

I am grateful for all of those — friend or foe — with whom I’ve come in contact over my life. I’ve learned much from each of you.

President John F. Kennedy probably said it best: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”