Monday, November 26, 2007

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                                 November 26, 2007
Thanksgiving 2007

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful
fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we
are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which
are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the
heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
                                                                                                                                       Abraham Lincoln
                                                                                                                                       Thanksgiving Proclamation, October 3, 1863

Thanksgiving is truly a unique American Holiday. It has a tradition that stems back to the days of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Plantation who in 1621 thanked God for the safe passage across 3000 miles of open water, for the abundance of their first harvest, but most importantly for the ability to worship as they pleased. From George Washington on most of the early Presidents (a notable exception being Thomas Jefferson) designated a national thanksgiving holiday. In 1863, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a Federal Holiday, a “prayerful day of thanksgiving”, on the last Thursday in November. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 set the date we celebrate today – the fourth Thursday in November.

This year we celebrated Thanksgiving in the newly and beautifully decorated dining room of our daughter, Linie, at her home in Rye, New York where she lives with her husband Bill Featherston and their three children: Caroline aged seven, Jack, 5, and Henry, 3. In the northeast the weather was almost spring-like; so my wife and I took the children – in anticipation of a hearty Thanksgiving meal - for a long walk to Jack’s school, the Midland School, on appropriately named Midland Avenue. There the children played on swings, climbed a ‘rock’ wall and slid down slides, burning calories and expending energy. Back at her house Linie was preparing for the meal. Our daughter is gifted with an imagination and a color sense that permits boldness in decoration. Her house shows it, particularly the dining room which she had painted a rich chocolate brown enhanced by a gold fabric wall paper. The table was set perfectly with china, silver and crystal. The result was stunning. Linie also has a Tom Sawyer-like ability to get others to help. Her mother made the dessert; her sister-in-law provided the vegetables and the starch; I cooked the turkey. Our oldest son, Sydney, was there with his wife, Beatriz and their three young children. Despite the opportunity for chaos, we made it through the meal, fortified with good wine and stimulating conversation. The children generally stayed at their own table, and by the end of the day only one trip was made to the emergency room – Caroline received a bruise on her foot while in pursuit through the living room. However, she returned home after a couple of hours wearing an ace bandage, a smile and carrying a little furry toy dog, disseminated by the hospital in lieu of a purple heart.

As a family holiday, Thanksgiving causes one to reflect back on earlier celebrations. Dozens of memories glide through my mind, but four stand out. I have a photograph of our dining room table in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1955. My father is seated, poised with a carving knife and fork in mid-air. A big smile spreads across his face. Around the circular table are eight of his nine children, all with a lean and hungry look on their reasonably clean faces. George, at two months, is napping. My mother is the photographer.

Thirteen years later my wife and I, along with two little children, attempted the drive to Peterborough, but were turned back due to a snowstorm. Thanksgiving that year consisted of deli sandwiches. The following weekend we did drive up, and Monday my father died after a long bout with cancer.

In 1978, the family of my paternal grandparents gathered for Thanksgiving. Though they were both dead, their house in Wellesley was still in the family belonging then to an aunt. Fifty-four of us showed up. Name tags were issued, as there were cousins and spouses, some of whom had never met. Two of the guests (an uncle and a cousin) came out of mental health institutions for lunch. My uncle had to return before dessert. The table, which sat forty-eight, consisted of tableclothed-covered-plywood placed on sawhorses set up in the front hall. Six young girls dined off a table on the staircase landing. Everybody had been asked to supply a dish. Miraculously it worked wonderfully. Whoever was in charge could have run a U. S. Army regimental commissary.

Ten years later, I recall a snowy Thanksgiving in Greenwich, when among our guests were a Deerfield classmate of our son, Edward, a young man named DJ Kim from South Korea and a Scotsman, Bob MacDonald, with whom I then worked. Whenever I see Bob now he reminds me of the human warmth that exuded from that family dinner and the subsequent walk along snow-filled roads, and how good he felt to be included.

Lincoln, during those dark days in the midst of a Civil War was able to find solace for which he gave thanks. Despite the slaughter on the battlefield – 600,000 lives would be lost during those four years – the population expanded during the 1860s by ten percent – 3,000,000 people. Lincoln’s words then inspire us today. While the problems President Bush faces pale in comparison to those which confronted President Lincoln, each generation is presented unique challenges. As a nation we now struggle with conflicting views as to the most efficient conduct of a war against Islamic terrorism, while maintaining our sense of democratic values, and we debate as to how best handle the fallout from the housing bubble and the myriad schemes – some fraudulent – used to finance that bubble. Amidst such turmoil it is easy to lose sight that there is much for which we all in this Country should be thankful. There is great satisfaction to be gained by the fact that we live in a place deemed to be part of the “New World”, yet we function under the world’s oldest democratic constitution. We give thanks for the fortune that permits us to be living at this time in this freest of all nations.