When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive: to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. ~ Marcus Aurelius
The month of November is a special time for me. For one, it is the month of my birth, and for that simple fact, I’m forever enamored with all things November and grateful for this life I am blessed to live. For most, November is the month that we set aside to give thanks for all that we have and for the freedom we enjoy as Americans. For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my most treasured holiday because of what it means to me to gather together with loved ones around a table boasting a traditional feast, first bowing heads in prayer, thanking God for the blessing of food, family, friends, love, and most importantly, that we’re granted another holiday to spend together.
During college days, Thanksgiving Break was often my first trip back home during any given first academic term. I’d travel the four hours between my Western Pennsylvanian college to my rural Ohio hometown either by van with my father at the helm on his way back home from a business trip, or by myself in the later years when I was fortunate enough to have my own transportation. My homecoming would always come in the evening, and to welcome me back, there was always a flicker ablaze from within the bellows of the red brick and brass fireplace central to our living room. The warming, spicy, cozy fragrances telltale of the season would be circulating throughout the glow of the house. After hugs and “hello’s,” I would immediately put on the tea kettle for my mom and myself, grab hold of our family cat, Muffin, wrapping her up in my arms and a warm blanket around my shoulders and gratefully nestle into my favorite spot on the worn velveteen sofa eager to crack open the spine of a fresh new novel I’d been dying to read. (I was always glad to have left a stack of college textbooks behind at school resting for a long weekend on the pine bookshelf attached to my desk in the dorm room I called home during the academic year). No matter the season of my life, to me, Thanksgiving has always meant coming home and slowing down, breathing in the biting grip of icy cool, crisp autumn air amid the hustle and bustle of life in general. I’m so grateful for traditions like the ones my parents were intent on creating for my family of origin–the type of traditions that are meant to be passed down through the generations. I’m thankful to be enjoying some of my favorite ones each Thanksgiving with my husband and children. (Whether they realize it now or not!)
Since marrying The Husband, we have been privileged to host a large family crowd on a great many Thanksgiving days. Last year, however, we opted out of hosting the large family gathering for a litany of good reasons. Since it was just the five of us for most of the day, I didn’t even roast a turkey! Instead, I chose an organic free range whole chicken, but made all our favorite traditional Thanksgiving side dishes and desserts (like roasted butternut squash and chocolate chip pumpkin bread). Because we had nowhere to go, the kids were happy to be able to stay in their pajamas and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, move slowly about the day and not worry about if they were making a mess with crafts, toys, or on clothes for fear of guests arriving soon. I was grateful to have an intimate family holiday for once, but did miss having the mix of guests scattered throughout the house. For last year’s change of pace, I am grateful for the understanding members of our families who knew we needed the break from hosting this beloved holiday.
Three years ago, I was scheduled to have Baby Girl via a cesarean section surgery the day after Thanksgiving because she had been breach the entire third trimester. (I had a previous cesarean with The Boy.) My mom took over the kitchen reigns that year assuming the role of Thanksgiving hostess as she had done for over thirty years as a wife and mother. The Husband, The Girl, The Boy and I joined my three siblings and their significant others at my mom’s place a mere three miles up the road after The Boy had a much-needed early nap. Part of the fun that year was that, although we had shared our third child’s gender after the twenty-week ultrasound, we kept Baby Girl’s name a secret the entire pregnancy until Thanksgiving night. As we were relaxing in my mom’s living room after devouring an amazingly indulgent feast, The Husband and I thought it would be fun if we let my family play a “guess her name” game hinting only at the first initial of her chosen name and then the era we chose it from. Together with those two clues, a litany of good name choices and even funnier ones were thrown out, but my younger sister finally won the game. (With a little help from Google, I suspect!) The other surprise on that Thanksgiving Day was that Baby Girl almost didn’t wait for her scheduled surgery! It was a close call! We had so much to be thankful for that Thanksgiving, but at the top of my list would be for my ever-generous mother whom after not getting much sleep the night before came over to sleep on our living room couch that evening just in case we would have had to head to the hospital in the middle of the night instead of our scheduled 7:00 AM arrival at the hospital for surgery; for my siblings who helped juggle the care of The Girl and The Boy the day after Thanksgiving while The Husband and I spent the day in the hospital welcoming Baby Girl, then after some minor complications, getting me well enough to see my family of five together for the first time; for my beautiful third child ever the surprise and miracle since we first learned of her life; and for The Girl and The Boy who were the first to call me “Mommy.”
There have been so many wonderful Thanksgivings in my thirty-plus years of life. One particular Thanksgiving will be forever etched in my memory–the last Thanksgiving I shared with my dad before he died from a sixteen-month-long battle with small cell lung cancer. Although he was on the downward spiral of his life that November, I was so glad that we could add another holiday together. My unmarried siblings, my husband and I all came from our corners of the world and gathered for what would be the last Thanksgiving we would share as a family together with my mom and dad at their home. That Thanksgiving Day was a solemn one as my dad, who would normally eat his fill, could barely make it to the table and once there, moved his food around the plate in front of him without care, without taste, without interest. Apologizing, he excused himself to my parent’s bedroom. After a much-needed rest, he joined us once again in the living room, although mostly immobile at this point. Although there were tremendous melancholic tones to that holiday, we did have football, board games, too much wine drinking (by some and not enough by others), and one of the clearest, star-sparkling late autumn skies that I can remember seeing in quite some time.
On Black Friday, our family–not the wake-up-at-midnight-to-shop-crazy-sales-type family– moved our focus directly toward Christmas–our dad’s favorite holiday–geared toward the task of helping our mom transform her home from an autumnal atmosphere to the epitome of “Merry Christmas” down to the tiniest detail. We left no holly jolly decoration unpacked. If it existed, we found a place for it. While we decked the halls, our dad was keenly focused on putting up the Christmas tree, but soon felt that he didn’t have the energy in him to engineer the task all by himself like he had every prior year. So, we sent him to back to his bedroom for another nap. While he was asleep, we ate Thanksgiving leftovers and reminisced. The tears were wiped away in time to greet our dad again when he felt well enough to join us in the makings of Christmas. Now that he was at his maximum energy level for the day, that meant helping him assemble the perfect tree. After all, it would be his last one to enjoy.
All my life, my father was a traveling salesman which meant he was home very little. For most of my growing-up years, he was having to travel across a few states ten months out of the calendar year in order to cover his sales territory, as well as attend sales conferences and various mid-season meetings, presentations, and such. We missed him but understood the reasons he was gone and grew used to having him in our lives Thursday nights through Sunday afternoons. All the time our dad was on the road–pre-cell phone days–he never missed a phone call to us–not one night that I can remember.
Once my dad made his way home for the winter season, he soaked up all things Christmas. The Type-A personality that made him genius in his career was focused on obsessing over every Christmas tree we had in our home. I can remember one year he set about cutting down that year’s beautiful pine. He brought it home and realized it was too tall. So, after sawing the trunk down a few times, hauling it inside the house, placing in its red and green metal tree stand, situating the tree in the perfect spot in the center of the picture window in the our front room living room—after literally hours of effort—he decided he liked “another tree” better! He went about unwrapping all the twinkling lights he’d already wrapped around the interior and exterior branches, unraveled the Christmas tree skirt from the base of the tree, and tossed the lot in the middle of the multi-shaded brown carpeted living room floor because he had decided that our seemingly beautiful soft green pine wasn’t good enough and he was determined on going out for a better one! I’m not sure if my mom intervened or not during this moment of temporary insanity that came over my father; I’m not sure if we let him trash or donate this idyllic tree and head out in hot pursuit of another one. What I do remember is my father’s spirit for Christmas and for us, and the intensity he felt every new December. With every onset of Advent came my father’s insistence on giving us a perfect Christmas right down to the tiniest detail—even going so far as chopping down multiple trees until his satisfaction had been met, and our hearts had been won. My father’s insistence stemmed only from love—I knew this then and still feel it today—and from the hope of recreating the type of Christmas he had always wished for, but he never had as a child.
During the last Thanksgiving weekend we would share, my perfectionist father actually allowed his first son-in-law–my husband–to assemble the artificial Christmas tree that had belonged to our family for years by then, and he supervised the effort with very little criticism! I think of this moment, my dad sitting in his Queen Anne corner office chair watching my husband align each evergreen piece properly and deliberately, and I remember I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with them because the entire scene brought on feelings of such remorse and finality. I thought, “If dad can’t or doesn’t want to put together the Christmas tree, then he really must be dying. This must really be our last days together.” Funny to think on that time now and how he had been dying in front of my eyes for thirteen months prior to this moment, but this singular event is the one that did it for me. Seeing my father “pass the torch” on to my husband, giving over the task of constructing the family Christmas tree, only solidified for me the reality that my father was truly dying and wouldn’t be sharing in anymore holidays with us. I worried that he might not even make it to see the presents underneath that year’s tree.
Once the day-after-Thanksgiving tree received my father’s seal of approval in a thumbs-up fashion, my husband collected my siblings and me, telling us that the tree was ready to be trimmed. Before we began, my dad hollered out to my mother to “put on some Johnny Mathis” referring, of course, to the Christmas CD that will forever be our family’s Christmas mantra. With the music playing and the lights dimmed, my father was able to equally partake in our family’s last pre-Christmas ritual by taking to the multitude of cardboard boxes at his feet marked in his left-hander’s scrawl “XMAS”. As he cut open the cellophane-taped lids that upon opening revealed bunches of aged newspaper filling, my father took to unwrapping our family’s history in Christmas tree ornaments placing them directly in our hands. With every trinket and treasure he unwrapped, he set about a trail of rediscovery. I saw it in the glistening of his eyes that he was reliving the past with each ornament he found and trying, with all that was left of his might, to fasten his heart tightly around all the good memories we shared as a family. As he passed each ornaments to my siblings, husband, and to me, we searched a little of our memories, too, and for the perfect branch upon which to hang our lives, careful to place the most sentimental ones in his sight.
There’s not a Thanksgiving that goes by that I don’t think of my dad and I’ll be forever grateful for the twenty-nine Thanksgivings and Christmases I shared with him.
As I’ve done in years past, I’m participating in the 30 Days of Thanks campaign that begins on November 1st, and I hope you will join me in the effort. You can participate in any way or means that works well for you. You don’t have to blog, tweet, Facebook message, or even talk about your participation in the 30 Days of Thanks challenge if you don’t want to! If only you speak your gratefulness in your mind and heart, then the point of this gratitude movement will grow. Myself, I’m choosing to post my thoughts and reflections of thankfulness here, and will utilize other modes of social media to get the message out to the world (namely, on Facebook and Twitter). This simple path to foster an attitude and community of thanks truly is a happiness inducer. And I can speak from experience that it will help each one of us to stop for a moment and take note of the countless blessings we enjoy especially during what can be an overwhelming, even sad time of the year for many of us. Trust me, you’ll have trouble naming just thirty things you’re thankful for in the thirty days. And if that’s the case, then please keep the momentum going during the often thankless days of the upcoming holiday season. (And, if you feel compelled to do so, you might as well continue counting and naming your blessings and gratitude throughout 2014!)
During the next thirty days, I hope that November’s inherent beauty brings about many special times for you and the ones you love. And I hope your grateful heart increases thirty-fold with each passing day. Be thankful. Be blessed.