Friday, November 25, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving for One, Please!

With special thanks to Jaume de Marcos and the Rev. David Blanchard

Here it is the end of Thanksgiving Day, spent mostly alone here in San Nicolás, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This morning, when homemakers up north would be stuffing turkeys and getting them in the oven, anticipating that wonderful aroma with every basting, I wavered. Should I bother to celebrate Thanksgiving here? I briefly tuned into CNN en Español, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Thanksgiving Day parade and help get me in the mood on this ordinary Argentine workday. But no luck.

Who here cares about a U.S. holiday? There is no ex-pat community. Of course I can give thanks, and in fact, I keep a gratitude diary. Giving thanks is my cultural and familial heritage. But do I need to take a day off to celebrate that?

Sure, my food-focused Argentinian guests always dig right in to meals here. All the same, it would feel strange to invite people for whom this has no shared meaning. Maybe it’s a bit like asking a Moslem to Mass? When Roberto managed to find a turkey two years ago for my first Thanksgiving here, the visiting US exchange student made all the difference when he asked for more of that stuffing and pumpkin pie, “just like Mom’s.” Our Argentinian companions, I suspect, were more grateful for our sparkling pool on a gorgeous sunny day.

This year, without a single US friend or relative here to celebrate our shared cultural and family histories, the ritualistic aspect would seem little more than a curiosity. . . and I get weary of being a curiosity. Carving of the turkey, saying grace, acknowledging the Pilgrims and the Indians, appreciating Great-grandma Sara’s Limoges platter, remembering parents, aunts, uncles, and others not present: all this would have profound meaning for just one person at the table.

Just writing that makes me weep. I can put on a brave face 99% of the time, but major family holidays are surely the loneliest days here. (Even Christmas Day gets no more than a nod here.) Today Roberto is going about his day as usual while I am sitting here moping. Whining is simply not allowed here, so best to do it alone. Sigh. Suddenly I understand better what untold millions of immigrants gave up to assimilate to the dominant U.S. culture--what a painful process even though it was a free choice.

Thanksgiving for me is the most important U.S. American holiday. It’s about breaking bread together. It’s about our beginnings. A national day of giving thanks and being with loved ones. What could be a more moving ritual?

Shortly before I left, Thanksgiving had became a ritual at the Syracuse Unitarian Universalist Society, with the Rev. David Blanchard roasting turkeys and congregants adding the Waldorf and green salads, the white and sweet potato purees, the cranberry relishes and pumpkin pies. Sanctified by a prayer of thanksgiving by all, it became a UU Holy Communion, a blessed feast. Oh to be in Syracuse today, snow or no!

Okay, I’ll celebrate here with my husband, I decided. Over breakfast we planned a Thanksgiving dinner for two, after which he left for the farm while I sorted, cut and froze various kilograms of our latest strawberries. Mid-day he returned and informed me that he’d just been reminded of an evening obligation—annual dinner meeting of the French Society, of which he is an officer. Oh, and he could not scare up a turkey, not even a Cornish game hen. So I’d be dining alone. On whatever was in the house.

So during today’s long summer afternoon, I let myself slip into nostalgia, even melancholy. Then, prompted by a UU friend in Spain, I considered what it might mean to keep a ritual alive even though no one else is around to share it. What would a good UU do? What would a good U.S. American do? What would a loyal Scroggs family member do? They’d celebrate no matter what! A tremendous compassion and admiration surged through me for all those who had ever struggled to keep their own rituals and celebrations in the face of oppression. Surely they had surmounted obstacles much greater than a lack of company! Right then I committed myself to keeping Thanksgiving, with or without family, friends, or turkeys.

When Roberto sallied forth for his French rendezvous at 8 p.m., I jumped up and put the family ritual in motion. First I adorned the dining table with the finest linens, dusted off my great-grandmother’s French porcelain, washed two Waterford crystal goblets, and unearthed the antique family silverware, emblazoned with “S.” Energy from all the past hands that had touched each platter and bowl, each fork and spoon, each glass, radiated into my hands! Quivering with growing joy, I replaced the tapers on the dining table with tall white ones and scattered votive candles around the room. I stood back and admired the setting. All my maternal ancestors seemed to be with me, beaming acknowledgment at my efforts.

Next, in the kitchen, the filet mignon roast practically popped itself in the oven while the artichokes steamed away in the microwave. Instead of nuking the yesterday’s mashed potatoes, I whipped up a new puree—and added two cloves of garlic. Yummy! My reserve of Trader Joe’s organic dried cranberries and blueberries substituted for the usual relish, and made a fine remembrance of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. “Let’s skip the olives,” I said to myself, but left the quaint slotted sterling spoon on the table all the same.

My biggest quandary: what would replace the pumpkin pie? “We’re celebrating the harvest, right?” I asked myself. “Yes, so make it strawberries!” I set up the electric ice cream maker and quickly poured in the sugar syrup and fruit puree from our own fields into its whirring purring center. . and added a dash of Cointreau in true holiday spirits!

In less than half an hour, my mood had risen from self-pity to very determined to happy as I was doing all this in honor of Thanksgiving Day. Just one person was going to be dining here, and she was going to be very thankful!

The best bottle of wine in the house turned out to be nothing less than a 2002 Syrah-Malbec by Escorihuela Gascon of Mendoza—and I decided the occasion warranted it! After lighting the tapers and votives, I turned out the lamps. Everything glowed golden and burgundy. For one, it was indeed an abundant feast!

Taking my seat in the American oak chair at the head of the table, I bowed my head and gave thanks: to the Pilgrims for their determination, to the Indians for their hospitality, to my ancestors for their optimism, to my family and friends for their love, and to the earth for its bounty. Then I savored forkful by forkful the wonderful Thanksgiving meal before me. I felt connected to my beloved family, my spiritual community, the human race, the universe.

Wait—Thanksgiving Day doesn’t end there! Afterwards, I completed the ritual slowly, mindfully, storing the leftovers for tomorrow and washing, drying and putting away with care all the porcelain and silver. Joyful serenity sneaked up on me and caught me off-guard. “Do priests feel this joy tidying up after mass? What about celebrants after the Japanese tea ceremony?” I pondered that for a minute and then returned to cleaning the ice cream machine and wiping off counters with a smile. Even holiday meal clean up has its pleasures, as my family knows.

With all the evidence of my private Thanksgiving dinner put away, except the vacuum-stoppered, half-empty bottle of fine wine, I called my children to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving. Having kept Thanksgiving Day in my heart and home, I went to bed content. It may have been Thanksgiving Dinner for One, yet I felt a part of time and space and humanity, using ritual to transcending my small solitary self for at least one day. For that possibility, I offer eternal gratitude.

P.S. The next day, Roberto salivated at the sight of the leftover roast beef, great wine, and sorbet—and I decided to share. He pronounced everything delicious! Maybe next year he’ll remind the French Society to pick another evening for the annual dinner so we can have Thanksgiving for Two. Who knows, maybe more!

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