A Thanksgiving Story
Two candles burn side by side in my dining room as I prepare for another pandemic Shabbat. First is a tall seven-day shiva candle, blackened around the top after burning for six days. Jon is coming to the conclusion of shiva for his mother, Ruth Finkelstein Ignatoff, z”l. The second was lit last night for the 11th of Kislev, a yahrzeit candle for my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack, z”l, who died just before Thanksgiving twenty-four years ago. Every year at the end of November from now on, we will remember two mothers whose most sacred holiday was Thanksgiving.
When I realized that today is Black Friday, an intensive retail engrossment that I have never fully understood, I said jokingly to a friend, “Black Friday has a brand-new meaning for me this year.” He agreed and added, “I guess Thanksgiving ever after is ruined for you.”
That could be one way of looking at it. But that is not the way I look at it.
It is true that Thanksgiving is now attached to two significant deaths. But Thanksgiving is also the holiday when our first born, Noah, arrived in the world. And Thanksgiving is also the holiday when Ben and Lindsay were engaged to be married last year.
There is enormous power in the stories that we tell ourselves, in the way that we tell our stories and the perspective we take as narrators. We can shape our stories so that they are useful and comforting, or we can take on a viewpoint that creates a story with us as suffering protagonists at the center of depressing events beyond our control. So often we seem to forget that WE are the authors of our own stories. So this is how I will tell my family Thanksgiving story:
Thanksgiving has been sacred in Jonathan‘s family from a time long before he can remember. His Grandma Sadye’s large, extended family would gather in the Woonsocket, Rhode Island house for an entire weekend which included a Thanksgiving dinner for sixty family members in two seatings. Jon’s siblings and cousins share happy memories of candlepin bowling, Uncle Rick’s drooling St. Bernard, annual trips to Grandpa Noah‘s coat factory for new jackets, and Friday lunch at Howard Johnson’s.
Thanksgiving shifted and changed over the years, but it always remained Jon’s mother’s holiday. Elements of the invitation list and menu have stayed in place; and the weekend long celebration and treasured traditions continue with new participants and locations. My house filled up every year with my in-laws and my nieces and nephews; everyone magically finding someplace to put down a pillow. My sister-in-law Maggie and Jon’s brother Dave found a way to fit all the tables in their house and welcomed us in for a day of eating, board games and poker. And my mother-in-law always reigned over the day. Maggie has copious notes in Ruth’s handwriting to prove it!
If we held the perspective that those good old days will never return again, we would be missing the new experiences there to be enjoyed over the years. If we held the perspective that this season is now one of loss, we would negate the special joys that continue at Thanksgiving time.
Just two of us sat down to dinner last night with a 20-pound turkey and only one meat eater. But after zoom calls to express gratitude, we were perfectly content with our Thanksgiving experience. The main point is the gratitude, and that is the story Jon and I told each other as we shared a meal of plenty.
Last night after minyan, Rabbi Scheff shared a playlist of five Israeli songs about gratitude to enhance our Thanksgivings. My favorite, by the late, great Uzi Hitman, is called “Todah” (Thanks).
Thanks for all that You’ve created, thanks for what You’ve given me. For our eyesight, a friend or two,
for what I have in the world.
For the song which flows,
and a forgiving heart
– because of all this – I exist.
Several congregants have mentioned to me that in the past couple of weeks, it feels like the clouds are starting to part and the sun will break through to shine again. I think, however, that we still have months to go in this pandemic. I am not expecting complete sunshine quite yet. But I am grateful that I have arms that can reach up to the sky and help push those clouds out of the way.
Because of all this, I exist.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The forecast for yesterday was rain and the only way I could have any of my family for Thanksgiving dinner would be if there was no rain and we could eat out side on my deck. Well I had a long talk with my God and I explained that being alone so much was getting to me, and I really wanted to say thank you to god for the fact that all of my family and loved ones are healthy. Well, I am sure you all noticed what a beautiful dat it was. It was truly a she-he-che-ya-nu day. So Rabbi, thank you for your thoughts and guidance and GOD thank you so much for hearing my prayer.
Lydia, your deck is a holy space, a sacred sanctuary for you and your family. Of course God would make sure that your celebration of gratitude could go forward! Shabbat shalom!
Wow! As always I enjoy reading your perspective on things. Just hearing the word gratitude makes me think of you. I know I have much to be thankful for, remembering that is sooo important. Enjoy today and everyday. Have a wonderful Shabbat!
Thank you, Sally! I have been thinking about the summer zoom class where we learned together about an attitude of gratitude! It works even in the most difficult of times.
Thank you for your uplifting way of looking at events. You are a big piece of my gratitude pie. Have a blessed Shabbat.
Thanks so much, Annette! I love that metaphor, and you’re part of my gratitude pie also. Can’t wait till we’re together and share some real pie together – apple or blueberry, take your pick!
Dearest Rabbi Drill: I was very moved by your loving blog about Thanksgiving and your emotional and loving message for all to remember the importance of building memories that are meaningful with deep feelings of Gratitude. We may feel alone in the holidays upon us. However , our love ones are with us, even at a more distant place. I certainly experienced this in my holiday. I love you, Jonathan and family. Love, Lita Mustacchi
Dear Lita, I so appreciate your beautiful response about building memories on a foundation of gratitude. Indeed our loved ones are with us – in their recipes, their stories, the faces of the next generation. Jon and I love you too.
Jon, sorry for your loss. May her memory be blessed forever.
Dear Scott, Your condolences are very much appreciated and I passed on your loving words to Jon.