I felt someone nudge my foot under the table and knew Uncle Stan was signaling the time had arrived. As I scanned the faces of the guests at our Thanksgiving dinner, I imagined most of them forgot it was coming, which was easy to do since it occurred only one time each year. There were a few neophytes scattered throughout the guest list, blissfully ignorant of what was next on the holiday agenda and I worried about them. We were about to embark on a potentially painful activity but it helped to be surrounded by friends and family and not have to go it alone. Knowing others would struggle didn’t make me less anxious, just less lonely.
“I want to thank you all for joining us for our Thanksgiving meal.” Father had determined everyone was sufficiently in place and he wanted to begin the repast, so he stood and brought forth his traditional greeting. “It is always so wonderful to have friends and family here with us and, I must say, everything looks absolutely delicious. Thank you to everyone who participated in bringing food and especially thank you to my wife for all her hard work in the kitchen and in preparing the lovely decorated home in which we are all sitting.” He motioned toward my mother with one arm, extending his hand in casual recognition. He smiled at her, she returned it and gave a small nod. Formal, yet heartfelt.
All twenty-three of us clapped politely although the spread that was laid before us probably deserved a standing ovation. The dining room table had been stretched to the maximum using every available extension leaf and it was covered in food, place settings and classy table top arrangements of pinecones, toile and dried, multi-colored corn cobs. It was overwhelming, the combination of colors and smells all mingling perfectly to tease eyes and noses, and it was killing me to have to wait to eat, but we weren’t even close to picking up our forks. Father continued.
“As most of you know, the O’Neil’s have a little tradition at Thanksgiving and I would like to invite everyone to join us this year before we break bread.” My uncle kicked me but was staring straight down into his empty plate. The rest of our guests were reacting one of two ways. The ones who had no idea what was coming were smiling, their eyes full of anticipation, possibly expecting a gift or, at minimum, a handshake or hug. The veterans were sporting wide-eyed looks of fear, especially the ones who forgot what was coming and were not prepared. Their palpable fear helped me relax. This had a chance of being fun.
“What we like to do is go around the table and have each one of you share with us one thing you are thankful for. There is only one rule and that is you can’t repeat what someone else has said. That gives us a chance to hear a wide variety of responses before we pray and thank the Lord for all he has provided for us.” He scanned the faces at the table, smiling at them all, seemingly unaware of the knotted guts and dry mouths his little speech had just induced. “Aunt Rose, why don’t you start?” And so it began.
The key was to go first, or at least go early, because the closer you were to the end the more creative you had to be with your answer. According to the unwritten yet firmly memorized rules the order was established clockwise based on the first person chosen. Dad was throwing Aunt Rose a bone. First was good and she knew it.
“I’m thankful for my children,” said Aunt Rose, speaking slowly with a big smile on her face that everyone correctly interpreted as having nothing to do with parental pride but everything to do with her knowledge that she just screwed the rest of the family out of the easiest answer.
“I’m thankful for my parents.” My cousin took the second easiest answer and the tension around the rest of the table congealed thicker than Uncle Neal’s brown gravy. I conducted a mental calculation and determined I was Designated Thanker #18, which, obviously, put me closer to the end than the beginning. That was dangerous territory, being so late, and I was going to have to come up with something particularly clever.
My aunt Phyllis mentioned she was thankful for the food, which, I felt, was a bit of a cheat since father had already alluded to that in his opening monologue but she got away with it because she is old as dirt which allowed her to play the sympathy angle. She sealed it by pretending to have something caught in her throat then quickly taking a sip of water while cutting her eyes to my Uncle Phil sitting next to her. He picked up on the one-act play and reached over, patted Phyllis on the back and asked if she was okay. She nodded yes and he exclaimed, “I’m thankful my beautiful bride is okay.” It was brilliant, obviously rehearsed and I thought I was going to puke.
Every year one of the cousins is going through their “invisible friend” phase so, on cue, my seven year-old niece did her part and told us she was thankful for “Beatrice.” It’s cute and it’s hard to be annoyed since she is so young. My brother tried it once, telling everyone at the table he was thankful for his friend “Sparky,” but it was creepy because he was 19 and in college. Father called him on it and, not thinking anyone would protest, my brother mounted a spirited protest until father insisted he either present “Sparky” in person or try again.
My grandmother was next in line and she is a wild card because of her age. She just turned 96 and each year her answers have gotten more eccentric and, inevitably, funnier. There was a long pause while we waited for her to say something but she was staring at her reflection in her empty plate, making faces, amused and content. Father cleared his throat and she looked up, did a slow turn with her head, taking in everyone around the table, and then asked, “Why is everyone staring at me?”
“It’s your turn to tell us what you’re thankful for, Grammie.” My sister played the role of White Knight, trying to keep the momentum moving forward. Grandmother stared at her for several seconds and finally said, “Are we still playing that ridiculous game? I told your father it was annoying the first year he came up with it. People want to eat, not talk! Apparently he doesn’t listen to his mother anymore.” She quickly looked away from my sister and resumed staring at her empty plate.
After a few moments of awkward silence while we waited for her answer, she suddenly blurted out, “Pass!” and continued looking down, defiant and obviously irritated. A few of the younger kids started laughing but were quickly shut down by glares and unseen grips on little legs under the table.
Next up was my younger brother. He is in possession of a big, giant brain so his Thanksgiving response is usually so obtuse that no one understands it. One year he spouted a rambling medical definition for his “thanks” that was greeted with complete silence by all in attendance. It wasn’t until after dinner when I asked him for a clarification that I found out he had just told a room full of beloved friends and family that he was thankful for being able to “poop.”
This year, he took a surprisingly different approach by placing his arm across my Grandmother’s shoulders and saying, “What she said.” He uttered it with no anger, no sarcasm and no malice in his heart. He just looked at father with a large, sincere smile on his face. I was stunned. It was a brave line of attack and as with all such daring ventures, it bordered on stupid. He was confident even though he had to know it was a risk.
“Are you sure?” father asked.
“Yes sir, I am,” my brother answered, his smile huge but still not showing any sign of being forced.
Father’s next words were simple but they held the potential to alter holiday tradition within the O’Neil household for generations to come. They resounded with such power that their mere declaration caused tiny fissures in the familial foundations on which we had long relied. He looked my brother in the eyes and, without blinking, said, “Okay. Next?”
There was an audible gasp in the room as people worked diligently to process what had just happened. I stared at my cousin Rob, who was next in line, and began sending him telepathic messages, trying to force his will to bend to my bidding. I needed him to realize that we were on the cusp of a huge breakthrough and his answer, his lone voice across the dining table, his correct response, could alter our annual pre-dinner ritual forever.
Rob was wide-eyed, biting his bottom lip, grappling with what he wanted to do, unsure if it was right, obviously feeling the enormity of the moment on his 26-year-old shoulders. “Uhm… I think… what I’m thankful for is… what he said.” Bingo! The little Dutch boy had pulled his finger from the dike and no one was going to be able to stop what came next.
“What he said,” said Sarah.
“What she said,” said Catherine.
“What she said,” said Dexter.
A succession of “he said/she said” answers followed and with each new proclamation fresh boldness permeated the room and the entire table was responding in record time. Every cousin, aunt, uncle and marginal relative was swept up in the moment and by the time it reached my chair no other alternative crossed my mind. “What he said,” flowed from my lips like a reflex, here and gone before I realized it was my turn. I was so caught up in the adrenaline of the moment that it wasn’t until the last person answered that I finally took notice of father’s reaction to the whole episode. He was smiling, even laughing a little, but there was a hint of disappointment in his eyes as he said, “I’m thankful you all let me get away with this tradition as long as you have. I’ll pray and we’ll eat.” This was greeted with applause and laughter that quickly subsided as father lowered his head to pray. We all grabbed hands and joined him.
“Father God, we are thankful for everything you have provided for us and we want to take this opportunity, gathered as a family, to verbalize what we feel in our hearts…” As father prayed, my mind started settling on some of the things I was thankful for. My wife, my long-suffering wife, who still loves me regardless; two wonderful kids; my family is relatively healthy; I’m employed and doing okay financially; we have two cars that, though not new, run; a great house; some wonderful friends; a cool dog; extended family that I get along with reasonably well; great parents who love my wife like one of their own kids; a church that cares about me; I still have a full head of hair… In the midst of all these things I was thankful for, I realized it wasn’t hard to come up with an answer to father’s traditional question. After just a few moments of reflection I had been overwhelmed with choices. Then I started feeling bad about what we had just done, ruining fathers tradition and letting our anxiety muck up the positives of the drill. I considered asking for a do-over, but didn’t know how to approach it without embarrassing everyone else. Then father’s voice cut through my internal monologue with the close of his Thanksgiving prayer.
“…and I ask that you prepare all of us in these next few weeks as we search our hearts and minds, trying to come up with things we are thankful for to share at the Christmas dinner in just under four weeks. Remind the family that they have been warned. In Your name we pray, amen.”
I looked around as we all released hands and nearly everyone was smiling. Maybe I hadn’t been alone in my thoughts. Regardless, my “do-over” had been scheduled and that was one more thing for which I could be thankful.