This One Meal

Editorial

New York Times

November 24, 2005

Somehow Thanksgiving always recalls the past. The question is which past. For most of us, the Pilgrims and their sufferings are no more real than the thought of a cold November day without central heating. The richest part of our imagination is bounded by childhood, and when we think of an authentic, historical Thanksgiving, we tend to mean the kind of feast we ate when the adults all seemed so much bigger and wiser and funnier - a feast that is authentic right down to the Jell-O salad, if you come from the Jell-O salad part of the country.

If you happen to be old enough, you celebrated Thanksgiving, as a child, in the company of adults who grew up during the Great Depression or came of age during World War II. What they tended to bring to the feast was a keen sense of gratitude.

"When I was your age," the stories began, stories of deprivation that contained within them a certain wonder at the abundance the storytellers found around them - not just the richness of the table itself, but the warmth and illumination of the houses, the way they kept a dark, wet November at bay. It was hard to hear those stories without feeling a certain skepticism. If life had been that difficult, why did grown-ups enjoy talking about it so much?

We often find it hard to be as thankful as we should be these days. For so many Americans, it is no longer a question of having too little or having enough. It's the difference between having too much and having way, way too much.

It is too easy to forget, amid this abundance, that all across America a different kind of Great Depression is still going on. The old stories would have been told very differently - if they were told at all - if they had been tales of growing up poor in the midst of wealth. There was no shame in the collective poverty of the Great Depression. There is no shame in the poverty Americans suffer today. The shame adheres to those who do nothing to change it.

Perhaps it isn't necessary to have gone hungry in order to be thankful for eating well. In a land of economic entitlement, gratitude may be almost too old-fashioned to sustain for more than this one day. But then there is something to be said for an old-fashioned holiday like this one. For a moment, we grasp how rich we are, how close we feel to the ones around us, and we give thanks before it all seems merely normal again.