November 30, 2004

COMMENTARY – The Monadnock of Holidays

First, I join with Martha Stewart, exiled in a West Virginia prison on one of her favorite holidays, in expressing thankfulness to our mass-media customers (or "fans," in her case) for paying our salaries this year, while expressing the hope that, like her, you are "safe, fit and healthy," even after today's heavy-cholesterol meal and lack of exercise. (Most prisons have good exercise programs.)

I also want to express thanks that, unlike Martha, most of us have freedom, but that -- as with Mrs. Stewart with the prison staff -- on most days we have mutually respectful "daily interactions" with our family and friends.

* * *

Mrs. Stewart, at least, knows what she's doing. Most of us really don't know how to confront Thanksgiving, despite its promotion by presumptuous columnists as America's "favorite,""best,""most genuine," etc., holiday.

It's a big Monadnock of a day, rising spartan and immovable in the middle of the week in stark and windy late fall -- resisting all efforts to put it on a Monday and thus create another long weekend. A lot of people would love to move it to the third Monday in July. (At my house, we deal with its challenges by going to a restaurant, which encourages a quick post-prandial dispersal.)

Like New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock, another New England icon, Thanksgiving sits there and broods. And that most feasts on this day end just as dusk is coming on makes it a better brooding environment for celebrants than most days off. (I would guess that there would be less brooding in, say, Fort Myers, Fla. For that matter, can a full-bodied Thanksgiving be marked where the leaves stay on the trees all year?)

That the holiday comes in dreary November, and requires what has become unusual for many Americans -- forced seating with relatives and/or friends for an extended period -- means that there's a deep ambivalence about it, what with serial divorces, our tedious search for our "inner child,""substance abuse," kids born out of wedlock and the spreading overall "complexity" -- i.e., dysfunction -- of family structures these days.

"No, you will spend Christmas with your mother. Today you're with us."

Many Americans don't really know how to do feasts, anyway. The idea of a family, let alone an extended family, sitting together for, say, an hour mortifies many in our ADD world. They fight such impositions by refusing to turn off their cell phones during Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.

Still, we do like to eat - indeed, we like to eat too much. The jovial sin of gluttony adds a sensuality to the holiday that, for many, more than offsets the traditional formality of the situation. Gluttony may indeed be the great sin of America these days, and I sometimes wonder if that's why Americans express such affection for the holiday -- that, and that you don't have to buy anyone a present.

Thanksgiving -- as do all the major holidays when you stop your getting and spending for a few moments and look around you -- also intensifies your sensitivity to the accelerating passage of time. That's unsettling but also raises the psychological value of the feast by highlighting life's scarcity factor -- thus expanding the thankfulness quotient.

You look around the table and the little children are suddenly adults, sort of; or, more alarming, where once there were children now there are grandchildren. Where did they come from? "Who does she look like? No one related to us!"

You can't but think of how many Thanksgivings you've been through, and guess how many you still have left. The other week I called the widow of a friend of mine in New York who died a few weeks ago. She wasn't there but the answering machine had his voice, politely identifying the phone number and asking callers to leave a message after the beep.

Here yesterday; eerie today. I'm thankful we had a nice chat a few months ago, when he looked in pretty good health (although he had been sick for some time). I hadn't seen much of him in the 40- odd (very odd) years since we were classmates, but we had been reconnecting a bit the past couple of years. His death made me want to attend a school reunion -- fast.

Which gets us again to the thankfulness part of Thanksgiving. You look around the table, see your priceless, impossible relatives and friends, realize that they are no more likely to change their stripes than you are, and that you have no right, or energy, to change them, breathe in the smell of too much rich orange, brown and green food, gaze at the bare branches scratching at the window outside, marvel at the late-autumn clouds scudding across the darkening sky, and think thankfully: "I am glad something put me on this weird, interesting trip with these passengers, who look both strange and familiar, who, like me, come from God knows where and are headed God knows where."

For a moment, the people around the table look stock still, and you have a snapshot of what might pass for eternity.

-- Robert Whitcomb