Just in time for Thanksgiving, there’s a new batch of holiday tips from the media. They aren’t about free-range turkey and gluten-free pumpkin pie. The subject is avoiding political discord at the festive table.
I can relate. My childhood Thanksgivings were mostly spent with my mother’s family, an eclectic mix of teachers, social workers, cops, and newspaper reporters. We gathered at the home of my formidable Great Aunt Hattie, a retired school principal and yellow-dog Democrat who did not suffer fools, academic slackers, or anyone on the Republican ticket gladly. The widow of an NYPD detective, she lived in shabby splendor in a creaky old house on Long Island. We sat down to our 26-pound turkey at a table set with threadbare Irish linen and chipped Limoges china and a bountiful harvest of divergent opinions.
My relatives all liked to talk politics and they agreed on two points: that good food and plenty of Canadian Club were essential to a spirited discussion, and that nobody would go away mad. After the shouting and the storming and the fire-breathing rhetoric, the aunts and uncles still hugged goodbye in the front hall.
It was a mystery to me that they managed to pull this off year after year. I was too young to understand most of the conversation, but there was no mistaking the loud clash of opposing views.
I have a vivid recollection of two Thanksgivings in the early 1960s. At the first, Aunt Hattie held forth about her recent trip to the polls. At age 85 and with failing eyesight, she required some assistance in the voting booth. When the election official asked her to indicate her choice, she thumped the floor with her cane and bellowed, “I will cast my vote for the only candidate any reasonable American will support: John Fitzgerald Kennedy!” So much for the secret ballot. Even the Nixon loyalists at the table laughed.
Three years later, the mood at Thanksgiving was somber. Only days after President Kennedy’s funeral, the holiday felt hollow. The usual lively debate was muted. When a glass of Canadian Club was raised to the departed, the cops and social workers and teachers and reporters put aside personal politics and stood up for the toast. Have a drink and remember the man, they said together.
After dessert, we moved to the living room to watch President Johnson on the ancient black-and-white TV. He looked old and tired, as though he had aged several decades in 72 hours. The picture was fuzzy, but his words were clear. “We are not given the divine wisdom to understand why this has been, but we are given the human duty of determining what is to be, what is to be for America, for the world…for all the hopes that live in our hearts.”
When I read these words now, I am struck by their relevance to the challenges we face today, challenges that extend far beyond snarky comments and hurt feelings at Thanksgiving dinner. The recent holiday tips for family harmony are fine as far as they go. Don’t make blanket assumptions based on political affiliation. Find common ground. Don’t be a jerk.
But the human duty of determining what is to be for America, for the world, will require more than tips. It will require courage and compassion. It will require humility and patience and deep reservoirs of restraint.
My Great Aunt Hattie is long gone. One of her threadbare white tablecloths lies folded in my linen closet, and I might bring it out this year, spruce it up with starch and put it on my own Thanksgiving table. I want to remember those old November holidays when the air crackled with dissent. I want to remember the loud voices and the fierce arguments and the hugs in the front hall. I want to remember our human duty to all the hopes that live in our hearts.
In all our hearts.
Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.
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