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More Dogs on Main Street

Thanksgiving is one of those high-risk holidays. It works on raw emotion, free of the distractions of presents to open or toasts to the New Year. There’s no hiding behind the wrapping paper. It’s just you and the family, staring each other down across a turkey dinner. The meal itself is a veritable minefield. The yams aren’t the way your mother made them; the stuffing is different. The turkey itself is a complicated undertaking, and one that happens only once or twice a year. A lot is riding on that bird, and despite advances in turkey technology like the little red thing that pops out to say it’s done, things can go terribly wrong. It’s burnt to a crisp on the outside and still frozen when you try to slice it. Or it dries out and becomes a kind of turkey jerky, and we are all required to say nice things to the cook, who has put in hours of work on the meal, despite how it turned out. Adding salt to the gravy could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

So we all approach Thanksgiving dinner with great caution. Often, there are family members invited that you don’t see any other time of year and, frankly, are glad of it. They are your third cousins twice removed, descended from a second wife following your grandparents’ scandalous divorce. Their kids are wearing mullets and their monster truck leaks oil all over the driveway. Or Aunt Mabel’s son, the art historian from Boston is in town with a "significant other" of uncertain gender, wearing a geeky turtleneck and looking condescendingly at the art on your walls — without comment, but looking. Everybody is nice and, after dinner, they go home. But it’s a level of kindness and sacrifice (there’s always somebody who insists on watching the wrong football game) that is character building. It’s a good exercise, and only comes once a year.

My family, fortunately, gets along pretty well. There have been some Thanksgiving dinners that stand out the Cool Whip Incident still looms large, and the Stove Top Stuffing confession has Grandma Jensen spinning in her grave to this day but for the most part, the ritual is carried out with a minimum of friction. There are enough very small children around that the noise level precludes any conversation with depth or substance. That’s not a bad strategy. I remember eating Thanksgiving dinner with some friends (following the midday dinner with family). There were only adults there, not all well acquainted, and conversation became a little strained. I longed for one of my grand-nephews to demonstrate his repertoire of armpit noises, just to break things up.

I think my favorite Thanksgiving story, though, is about a friend of my sister’s. This woman is really into it. Martha Stewart has nothing on her. Thanksgiving at her house involves a special set of dishes, each with a back story that would take an hour to tell (this plate came across the ocean from Norway, then across the plains in a handcart, and she died along the way and is buried in Nebraska; that salt shaker was bought at the Chicago World’s Fair by your great-grandpa Bergstrom ). The dinner itself couldn’t have been more complicated if she had raised the turkey in the backyard and butchered it herself with an axe behind the garage. Her house was in perfect order, and decorated especially for Thanksgiving, and I don’t mean with bowls of candy corn.

The meal was perfect. Food magazines would have put it on their covers. The family and friends gathered around the perfectly set table, in the presence of ancestors who had dragged the dishes half way around the world. And as they sat down, the hostess said, "I think, before we eat, that we should go around the table and each say what we are most thankful for." She turned to her husband, who was still focused on a football game faintly audible from a TV down the hall, and said, "Why don’t you start?"

This is the ultimate deer-in-the headlights moment. Truth be told, what he was most grateful for at that exact moment was that New England was up by a touchdown. But that would hardly work. So he thought for a moment and said, "I’m thankful I don’t live in Bosnia."

It was a perfectly innocent attempt at simplicity. At the time, all hell was breaking loose in Bosnia. It was a terrible civil war that was destroying all that humankind holds dear. In his mind, he was saying that Bosnia was the worst case scenario, and by contrast, he had the exact polar opposite a loving wife, wonderful children, each one smarter than the last, a nice secure home in a neighborhood with significant appreciation potential. All the men in the room nodded in appreciation, thinking, for the briefest of moments, "Gee, I wish I’d thought of that."

But it was the briefest of moments, for the hostess exploded into tears, and not over the hardships faced by the Bosnian people. The inclusiveness of his symbolic reference to Bosnia was lost. The ambiance of the elegant feast was crushed. She might as well have served KFC on paper plates. In case you were wondering, the correct answer — the one and only correct answer — to that question on Thanksgiving Day is "I’m most thankful for you, my love."

So while I, too, am thankful that I don’t live in Bosnia, or Iraq, or New Orleans, or a whole lot of places, I have to say I am extremely thankful to live in a place like this, to enjoy the wonders of nature all around me, to live in a town where people care about each other, and where we really have life far easier than we have any reason to expect or deserve.

Happy Thanksgiving.


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