Thanksgiving When I Was A Child: By Dr. Evan Keith
Recently, on United States’ Day of Thanksgiving, my mind remembered in my childhood when my family’s celebration of this holiday changed significantly for some years. When I was small, my mother would spend hours in the kitchen every Thanksgiving morning to prepare the requisite feast of a big whole cooked turkey along with many side dishes, which together were meant to represent the food that was eaten at the “First Thanksgiving” celebrated by about fifty Pilgrims, along with almost one-hundred Native Americans, after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. Although I did not notice at the time, I think my mom did not like being separated from her husband and three sons while she worked for hours in the kitchen. However, I do remember enjoying the fanciness of the feast at least as much as its delicious flavors.
A few days before one particular Thanksgiving, my dad made an announcement at the dinner table: there would be no turkey this Thanksgiving and, in fact, no fancy feast at all. Two reasons were given. First of all, it would be holidays were more for being with loved ones than eating special food. Besides, my mom was the only one who worked hard to make these special foods. Secondly, we could use the money that went into our feast to make a small offering to those who were to be deeply harmed by what the “First Thanksgiving” set into motion. At the time, in the United States everyone called these people “American Indians”. Today, they are referred to more appropriately as Native Americans.
My father’s proposal was to take the amount of money that went into buying food for our family’s Thanksgiving feast and using it as a donations the American Indian Foundation. On this one day, my dad himself would grill hamburgers while my mother prepared a few simple side dishes. This was not at all disappointing because my father made the simplicity of the meal highly meaningful. My father even created new rituals from his innate understanding of ritual and pageantry. Throughout the meal, my brothers and I would keep asking when these rituals would commence. Finally, at the end of the meal my father would send one of us children to get the checkbook and pen, another to get an envelop and stamp, and the third to get my father’s address book. Upon receipt of all these items, he would reposition himself into a regal pose in his wheelchair, hold out his arms in anticipation, then write the check and address the envelope. One of us would seal the check in the envelope, another would put the stamp on, and the third would place it in the mailbox as the rest watched.
Those Thanksgivings in the house on 108 Scenic Drive were the best I have ever experienced. Only years later did I fully understand how my father had masterfully addressed two cases of institutionalized oppression, one of women and the other of the indigenous people of North America, by re-appropriating some “turkey”-money . He did this at a time that “cowboy and Indian” movies were still largely popular and our society was just starting to question whether the taking of North America by people of European decent was just. He also made the point that, if anything at all, holidays were about the love of everyone in the family and their being together.
Today, I still see his understanding of ritual and pageantry whenever I visit my parents. After each meal for my parents, my father does a simple ceremony, involving two dog biscuits, for their two Pharaoh Hounds. After all, dogs are like people too. As side note: my parents no longer eat hamburger and very rarely eat turkey, but my father is still a quiet rebel if there is a cause.