In kindergarten, I vividly remember my teacher dividing our class into two groups at Thanksgiving: the pilgrims and the Native Americans. I was a Native American, and in the days leading up to our Thanksgiving feast, I meticulously colored my headband (which had feathers attached) and a paper grocery bag that would be the papoose I carried on my back.
Our school Thanksgiving feast was served on mint green Styrofoam trays that squeaked when they moved. We dined on sodium-saturated green beans, dry macaroni and cheese, rubbery sliced turkey, a buttery yeast roll dripping with honey, and stuffing topped with cranberry sauce and breadcrumbs.
My classmates and I sat at a long table facing one another and ate together. The food, although memorable in its own right because of its awfulness, was not what stirred my emotions — I was moved by eating together as a family.
All these years later, I look back and realize parts of that kindergarten Thanksgiving are what continue to make the holiday a meaningful time for me — breaking bread, sharing conversation, and spending time with the people who are close to you.
Each year for Thanksgiving, I sit at a table in my grandma’s tiny, cramped kitchen, filled to capacity with warm bodies and love. The food, of course, is the main attraction.
Some of the featured attractions include corn casserole swirled with corn, yellow rice, and topped with stringy cheddar cheese; collard greens with a potent pot likker that dazzles over otherwise bland white rice; a spiral-sliced ham with a crunchy, sweet crust on the edges; turkey that oozes with juiciness and flavor; and spicy dressing loaded with black pepper. A cream of mushroom gravy with hardboiled eggs as its crowning glory; macaroni and cheese with fontina, asiago, parmesan, gruyere and cheddar cheeses; wild rice glittering with extra virgin olive oil; and chitterlings make fine accompaniments.
Before we taste a morsel, my grandma leads the family in prayer. Myself, cousins, aunts and uncles crowd into the kitchen, holding hands, laughing and talking until we are silenced by the bowing of my grandma’s head.
Some of us forego the solemn prayer and instead giggle and smile at the rather lengthy prose to our heavenly father. As the prayer concludes, we are each asked to name one thing we are thankful for.
For quite some time, I saw the exercise as trite and a stumbling block to inhaling the meal that had taunted my taste buds all day. But over the past few years, I’ve come to see how crucial this simple, yet powerful, ritual is, especially with the loss of dear loved ones.
Each year, our family circle becomes smaller and smaller. This year will mark another year without two of my uncles and a second year without my grandfather. Each year, I look around the circle and am reminded how short life is and how incredibly blessed each of us — standing, eager, and ready to tear through the culinary contributions of family members — is to still be alive.
I am thankful for both big and small gestures of love from family members, like my cousins Shaundrea and Emeka who as older women always offer sage advice with laughter. Or my aunt Jennifer who loads me down with toiletries each time I see her, so I (a broke college student) won’t have to buy them on my own.
We may take those fleeting moments — laughing together over dinner, becoming fussy after a heated game of post-dinner spades, or slicing a piece of grandma’s famous sweet potato pie — for granted, but they are precious. They are a godsend.
The loss of a loved one’s presence, in many ways, never gets easier, especially during the emotionally heightened holiday season. This Thanksgiving, let us all stop and remember those we have lost and remain that much more grateful for those who are alive and present with us.
I know I will.
Thursday I’lI fix plate after plate of home-cooked goodies and end the day stretched out on my bed, unable to move because of too much great food. I will know, undoubtedly, that Thanksgiving has come and gone, and I am grateful, so grateful, for those magnificent, somewhat ordinary yet irreplaceable people God has planted in my life.