Thanksgiving, the Bittersweet Holiday

Wednesday, 23 Nov 2011 12:09 PM

By Susan Estrich

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When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. We shivered in the stands during the big game against the Big Blue, and our longstanding losing streak didn't matter. By the time I was a junior, I sat in the first row wearing a short skirt.

I may be the most uncoordinated person there is, but by sheer force of will, I learned to twirl a baton and made majorette, which was not the usual extracurricular for a much-maligned smart girl. Other than giving birth to my children and getting elected president of the Law Review, I think it was the happiest I've ever been.

In my little town, with all its lines between Protestants (number one) and Catholics (number two) and Jews (a distant third) — blacks would have been number four, but there weren't any — we all celebrated Thanksgiving. It was a quintessential American holiday, a day of unity and not division.

As I grew older, of course, there were many bittersweet Thanksgivings: all those meals where it was hard to notice who wasn't there, the family I didn't have, the disappointments of life. The days of cheering for the Magicians and coming home to a full table with my mother and father and sister and brother gathered together only made the days when I just hoped someone would invite me that much more painful.

And yet, the important lesson I have learned from Thanksgiving, from the hard days as much as the happy ones, is that you can choose to count your blessings or bemoan your losses. As I get older, as the empty seats multiply, loss becomes impossible to ignore. It is, like so many things, part of life, leaving us only the choice of what to do about it.

This Thanksgiving, people all over our country will come together without the ones they love most. They will come together after a year in which they lost their jobs, a year in which they had to explain to their children all that they hoped to give them and could not. They will come together, at least if they are my age, without their mothers cooking their favorite recipes and their fathers tending the fire, watching the game, carving the turkey.

Half-full or half-empty? I realize in retrospect that the pure joy I felt as a kid was never really shared by my parents. They knew the loss I know now. They saw the empty chairs even at a crowded table. My parents were not perfect, far from it. I am, I suspect, just as far. But the challenge is to fill up that table, if not for ourselves, then for our children, for our friends. If you can't make it, fake it, as some of my friends always say. Truer words I have never heard.

A few years ago, my ex-husband and I decided, after many years of dividing the kids between us, to share the holiday meal together. We are a family, after all, a family united by the greatest blessing in my life and his, the two children, now both away at college, who mark our finest hour. At first, I thought it would be awkward at the very least. But it is far less awkward than the division and the sadness that marked our Thanksgivings for so many years.

My parents never got that far. Their divorce marked the end of family Thanksgivings. After my father's death a few years later, I never went home again for Thanksgiving. It was over.

I know my children someday will gather without me. Perhaps they will remember these words. Perhaps, somewhere, they will find them. The people we love are always there in our hearts. Thanksgiving can be, if we choose, a day to remember the love they showed us and the gifts they gave us, the fullness of life and not of loss, the blessings of life and not the long shadow of death.

It can be a day to remember that, for all our nation's problems, we are the luckiest people on the face of the globe to live in the home of the free and the brave.

Happy Thanksgiving. May God bless us all.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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