We left the homeland more than thirty years ago. We were young and adventurous and happy to go. We were abandoning the New World and its slightly stale raw energy, giving up America's global bullying that was the sad result of a previous generation's heroism. We moved in the opposite direction from that of our European ancestors, going to instead of from the Old World, to London, literature, theatre, affordable opera and, most of all, history. It was supposed to be for a year or two, not life. It was supposed to be an extended vacation, not emigration. Many years ago, a wise woman whom we shamefully wronged said to us that life cannot be planned. How very right she was.
Like many people who wake up one day and are surprised to discover that they will probably never go home again, we have tried to make the best of it. There have been enough grand moments to ensure that it was not always very difficult to do so. We did not always miss the homeland so much. Oh, we miss family and the lake, but not really the homeland as itself. Except on Thanksgiving, and on that day, every year, our heart breaks.
Some expatriated Americans can create Thanksgiving wherever they go. But for us, the food, when transplanted, tastes dry as dust and the feast seems unreal. True ritual loses its beauty and meaning when dislocated and becomes nothing more than a ragged troupe of costumed folk dancers on tour. Humanity's deepest, dearest traditions cannot live outside of native climes.
Over the years, we have tried alternatives, American style restaurants in London or Paris or São Paulo that put on a special menu for Thanksgiving. Perhaps it was the local ingredient substitutes, but those meals tasted about as much like a Thanksgiving meal as a singing e-card sounds like real music. One year we invited a group of French friends who had all lived in the U.S. and liked Thanksgiving. Well, when we prepared the feast, it turned out that they detested corn bread and cranberries and pumpkin and yams. That meal turned into a French event and became a very serious competition of guess-the-wine that lasted over two hours. All we are good for is telling red from white. These French feasters were way beyond that, and none of this guessing the varietal namby-pamby either. The winner of each round had to name the wine by region, the chateau, and the year. And they could. It was impressive. It was not Thanksgiving.
Nor did it feel like Thanksgiving when we tried to cook the traditional meal in November in Brazil, when it was too hot to breathe and everyone is at the beach. In every place we have lived, it is just an ordinary school and work day. There is no festivity in the air, no one is sharing the excitement. Is that what it was like for your immigrant French ancestors? Were they generally happy in their new lives, but broke down or become sad at Toussaint, or could not adjust to Christmas on the morning of the twenty-fifth instead of midnight on the twenty-fourth? For us, we gave up long ago and have settled into our own, we suppose bizarre, outside of America, Thanksgiving tradition: we order Chinese take-away and watch "Broadway Danny Rose" and cry.
Usually, the crying starts early and lasts most of the day, as we try and fail to push away memories of loud and happy Thanksgivings around a big table when it is snowing outside. The homesickness is overwhelming on that day and on that day we are very American. We know that much of the world hates our country. Much of the time, half of the country itself seems to hate the other half, but not on Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, we are one. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Id, various New Years, are all exclusive in one way or another, but every single soul in America can celebrate Thanksgiving. Whatever religion or tradition or culture people have, they can join together for Thanksgiving, since it is pretty easy for everyone to have a moment of gratitude for food. It is the all-inclusiveness of the day that makes it so wonderful. There was always more than family at the table during our childhood Thanksgivings. The day is not about family; it is not tribal and closed; it is about sharing openly. On that day, once a year, we open our arms to invite and welcome others with old-fashioned generosity.
Now, as we sit through Woody Allen's mediocre film, our mind is full of memories of the many Thanksgivings of our childhood when we had the classic meal as best our mother could afford (there were great years and not so great) and of the many people we invited. Sometimes they were foreigners, students, new people in town, exhausted new parents, the isolated elderly, and many, many old friends. There is a need that we all feel to make sure that no one is alone on Thanksgiving that we find so beautiful in our people. We will knock on the door of new neighbours who may be total strangers to invite them for Thanksgiving, as it is unthinkable that anyone should be alone on that day.
We have seen a group of homeless people celebrate the day together, each contributing a sandwich or bread or an apple, surely each holding a precious memory in his or her head, sharing. We recall being with a group of students who could not get home for the day and who made a grand table of odd dishes together. We remember the glowing joy in the face of an elderly woman we knew in the 1960s as she told of Connecticut Thanksgivings with her huge family in the 1880s. They welcomed friends and strangers then, as well.
It is the last scene of the film that is the clincher. I think that this scene, more than any other version of the holiday on film, epitomizes the sharing and community that are Thanksgiving. In a grubby room, some lonely old men with take-away food come together to share and be thankful, because that is what you do, that is what everyone does, on Thanksgiving.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all, wherever you may be, Dear Readers.
©2012 Anne Morddel