“A dream must always be bigger than the person or the people.”
—The New York Times, November 28, 1968
In the Thanksgiving photos (from when I was a kid) there’s always a picture of the table dressed in linens and silver, crystal and china, and, at one end — lighting the candles, or posing with a pie, or conducting with a ladle — stands my beautiful mother, red-nosed, as if she’d been crying, and undoubtedly she had. Why? No telling. Not to say that somebody hadn’t been thoughtless or rude, but just as likely, it was no such thing — the women in my family are cryers, that’s all. We cry, not only when our feelings are hurt; also when we’re furious; also when we’re overcome with sadness, sure, or pride, or nostalgia; we cry when affirmed in our sense of hope and gratitude, too; moved any which way we’re liable to cry, and a liability it is — not just in the mortifying all-choked-up moment, but also years later, when it’s natural to revise family history; to assume from the photo, for instance, that some drama was to blame for my mother’s red nose, which is why I’m protesting (but not too much, really not) — in order to make my point: My associations with Thanksgiving are happy. As is true for so many American Jews, I love Thanksgiving best: I remember the holiday as bountiful, and raucous, and hilarious, too: we ate; we played football; we ate some more; we played charades; we ate again...
There was only one predictably embarrassing moment season after season — although, not the first time, surely not (I don’t actually remember — I was 12 in 1968): that Thanksgiving punctuated a terrible year in American history — one that saw the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King — and on that morning, November 28, my mother woke to an editorial in her beloved New York Times that she read to us aloud (welling up, of course) just before dinner was served. So the ritual was born, and through repeated performances took on too-stagy proportions and got on our collective nerves. My mother didn’t care. As recently as 2012, the last time she made the turkey, she defiantly read the piece all the way through (it’s short, thanks be), as if the rest of us weren’t twitching and sighing and rolling our eyes. But look, no big deal, really not. A quick toast, the clatter of plates, big decisions to make, like light meat or dark, white wine or red, and the mood shifted to one of genuine gladness and general thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving: warm as I am on the holiday — and my husband, for his part, no less enthusiastic — what a shock to realize at some point that our children didn’t feel the same: and how not to wonder how we’d failed them and ourselves in the bargain? What had gone wrong? When had they become so cavalier? Not just okay-with-whatever, but genuinely jazzed to spend the day elsewhere, with others? I want to think it wasn’t entirely our fault, rather due to a conspiracy of factors, the most obvious of which being that they’d both gone east to college, and, with plenty of family nearby (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) had wisely opted not to come home at great expense on the worst travel weekend of the year. A different pattern had prevailed, that’s all. Though there seems to be evidence now that in the wake of family squabbles and estrangements, I myself lay the groundwork for their defection, having earlier than I recalled lost my Thanksgiving mojo; abdicated my role as chief cook and hostess; accepted more invitations than I’d have admitted if my son hadn’t been compelled to recently remind me: “Mom, you never cared all that much about Thanksgiving,” he said. “Christmas is our holiday,” he added, thinking to cheer me — and a body-blow, that: again, my own fault — that’s what I got, that’s what I deserved; eons earlier I’d surrendered to Christmas. Now, dear god, Christmas-was-us.
Well, so, these things are what they are. You can’t force the issue. So what do you do? You put your head down. You decide (anew) to make a healthy adjustment. Once again — as has been true for going on a decade — you consider your options: what would be best? Or least awful anyway? Should you go to the movies? Should you order Chinese? Should you drive up the coast? But you can’t do that: your mother has arranged to come down on the weekend. She’s with your brother in San Francisco, where you might have joined her — you were definitely invited. But it seemed not worth the trouble (the long drive, and finding a place to stay) to celebrate with other people’s children, which, you know by now (even though you’re related; even though you adore your niece and nephew), without your own children, will not be much fun. So. Reconciled as you are to another lack-luster Thanksgiving, imagine your surprise — my surprise, our surprise — to get a text from our daughter toward the end of October, asking if we might want to have Thanksgiving at our house this year. We were thrilled, of course.
But then came November 8th — election day.
Afterwards — tell me — who felt like giving thanks? Who was in the mood to be grateful, who? We’d rather, at this moment, be outraged, right? We’re outraged! Our outrage is vital and important and also exhausting — as is our grief — we’re grieving, too, after all; we’re outraged and grieving and terrified and this is no time for a holiday. Except it’s Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving won’t be pushed — we can’t call it off. And here, perhaps, is proof of the worth of tradition, which demands that we rise to the occasion; which chastens and hastens and reminds us of how we should be, might be, could be, in spite of how we are.
So: How many years since I’ve roasted a turkey? I can’t remember. I supposed I should find the family recipe. I knew just what I was looking for: a yellow folder stuffed with clippings and notes, faded Xeroxes and slippery last-minute faxes, typed out on my dad’s old IBM Selectric, or written in lovely looping longhand (my mother’s) — had I really thrown all that away? Would I have done such a thing? Well. What did I care? What did it matter? I was despondent, haven’t I said? I gave up the search. Easy enough, anyhow, to find instructions online. But then, a few days before, I caught a glimpse of yellow in the back of my closet: there it was (in a metal file tucked behind an old pair of boots)— the folder marked THANKSGIVING. And inside, among the recipes (for the turkey, of course; for stuffing; for squash ratatouille, and baked endive, and leeks gratin, and creamed spinach, and cranberry-orange relish, and French 75s and and and), was a page — spotted with what? Oil? Drippings? — very evidently typed out by my dad; his sense of humor at work; his idea to codify the document as if it were something to cook and eat:
Title: Thanksgiving Editorial
Subtitle: (English) Thanksgiving
Healthful? N. Freeze? N. Tested: N. Prep in Advance: N.
And then the text:
We give thanks today for a dream, the American dream. And before [smudge, stain] ... cynical question [wrinkle, smudge]... asked [smudge, spot]...we must remember that it is [illegible]...achievement [illegible]... Dreams and hopes to be [stain, wrinkle, smudge]...must be big enough to demand a longer reach, a greater strength than...
Somebody — some-several-bodies — some several (many) Thanksgivings had rendered the article impossible to read.
Which is what sent me to The New York Times archives online, where I got lost in the news of the day — November 28, 1968 — 278 results in no particular order, it seemed, and so I scrolled:
Methodist Bishop Backs Practice of Birth Control
25 Debutantes Shake Hands Instead of Curtsying
Ship Named for Negro
Number 37: Ruhr Coal Mines Effect A Merger: A brighter future dawned in the crisis-ridden Ruhr Basin today as 23 coal-mining companies took their long-prepared first step toward total merger.
Number 119: 4 Police Face Ouster in Chicago
CHICAGO, Nov. 27 (AP) — A Police Department inspections board recommended today that four policemen be dismissed for using "excessive force" during the week of the Democratic National Convention.
Number 213: No Word for Romney
LANSING, Mich., Nov. 27 (AP) — Gov. George Romney said today that he had not been offered a position in the Administration of Mr. Nixon and did not know if such an offer would be made.
Number 236: Nixon Changes Slogan to “Forward Together,” (from “Bring us Together”)—
Just a sampling, mind you. Enough to make me mutter to myself, plus ça change, if you know what I mean: enough to get me thinking about Watergate. Enough to get me going — I could not stop: I discovered that the Soviets were trying to grow vegetables in space that fall; that Ford had to call back 81,200 defective cars; a New York City insurance agency had been charged with discrimination for having “cut off fire coverage in slum areas”; Britain had ratified a treaty to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons; The Oakland Seals tied the Minnesota North Stars, the Greek Royal Family was stripped of powers, and Humphrey, having lost the election — to Nixon — went out hunting with his sons.
“The Rich and the Poor Coexist in Silence” read a headline in the Metropolitan Section. The Celtics beat the Knicks, and eight men from New York were listed by the Pentagon as casualties of the Vietnam War. Humphrey — Humphrey again — “quietly [prepared] to assert his leadership of the Democratic party over the next four years...”
And somewhere in the middle of all that news was my mother’s editorial — Number 124:
We give thanks today for a dream, the American Dream. And before the cynical question is asked, we must remember that it is the dream, not the achievement, that we are talking about. Dreams and hopes, to be worth having at all, must be big enough to demand a longer reach, a greater strength than we commonly have. A dream must always be bigger than the person or the people.
The more things change, the more they’re the same. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be better by now, of course we should. Which also isn’t to say things have never been worse — though, if they have, they have never been so dangerous for so many. Even so, to look back is, if not exactly a comfort, some kind of strange inspiration — a history as opposed to a reality check — a moment to resolve anew. See, I can’t remember where we were for Thanksgiving in the year 2000, when the president-elect also lost the popular vote. We were angry, that I know. And four years later, as disgusted as we were — how had we elected him twice, how? — we must have had Thanksgiving, right? Thanks to Obama — I mean that — for almost a decade, I’ve allowed myself to take the holiday personally: as if it mattered how I did or didn’t spend that day. In the course of which time — eight years with Obama during which I took my American pride and privilege for granted — our son was right, Thanksgiving had paled: I’d forgotten what it’s for, what it means, what it’s really about.
This year, though — this November — I’m reminded more than anything of the anguish we suffered in the fall of 2001. Again, I can’t remember where we were or with whom — I want to think we were home with friends, with their children and ours, aged eight and 11 — but we must have been making a very great effort to celebrate at all. I’m not saying that putting a deluded, delusional clown in the highest office of the land is as tragic as the loss of 2977 lives — it isn’t, of course — no comparison, except that the events of that autumn and this one are similarly physically sickening. And depleting. But this debacle is one of a different order, with different implications as well. To wit, in 2001, we would have come together in our American sorrow — the threat was outside, out there. Whereas this year, the holiday reveals a terrible, internal divide: nearly half of us rejoicing while the greater half feels like something bigger than ourselves has sustained a potentially mortal wound. And, as in 1968 — when my mother’s editorial was written — we have somehow done this to ourselves.
And yet. “The dream persists among us, a dream of putting an end, at last, to ignorance, and bigotry and intolerance,” wrote the unnamed author. And he concluded:
That is the dream, still, and we are thankful for it this day. Thankful it lives, knowing it will never die so long as one man among us remembers and believes in it.
Are you wondering if I summoned the nerve before the feast the other night to stand up and read? I did not. But I was remembering. I was thinking of my mother, and when I pick her up at LAX today, I’ll tell her so, and make her day, and both of us will probably cry. No photographs, please.
Dinah Lenney is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.