Creating a Thanksgiving narrative of our own

Sunday , November 26, 2017 - 4:00 AM

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

As the Thanksgiving weekend draws to a close, my thoughts naturally gravitated towards gratitude. We all spent the weekend talking of the things we are thankful for with our family and friends, but with every “I am thankful for,” there is a always a potential dark side. If you are thankful for your health, what happens when you get sick? If you are thankful for your family, what happens when your family is disrupted by divorce or death? If you are thankful for you employment, what happens when you lose your job or your company implodes?

Gratitude is felt more keenly against the cutting edge of loss. It becomes easier to be grateful for your health after recovering from a long illness. Gratitude, in some circumstances, carries with it a sense of narrowly escaping loss or pain, thanks to whatever fortune allowed your escape. Gratitude also gets used as a comparative tool as we weigh our circumstances against those who we perceive to be less fortunate. Gratitude is as messy as the table at the conclusion of a Thanksgiving feast: the food was delicious, but life intrudes with dirty dishes, cranberry stains on the table runner, and too many sweet potato leftovers. Gratitude is most effective when coupled with compassion and understanding for others. The addition of compassion to gratitude transforms the sentiment from “lucky me” to “There, but for the grace of God go I.”

I notice conflicting narratives on the history of Thanksgiving seem to crop up more and more, every year, especially on social media. Indignant socially aware folks feel shame at the memory of our forbears' actions in the early days of our nation. The traditional Pilgrim narrative is challenged by Native Americans and others. Thanksgiving for the Native Americans is a reminder of genocide and subjugation, not expansion and freedom.

History, whether on a national scale or a familial scale, is often dictated by the storyteller. The hilarious childhood anecdote about flinging mashed potatoes at your cousins may be quite different from your aunt’s version, set in a brown-blot reminder forever on her expensive, antique rug. So which narrative is true? Both, of course. From one storyteller's point of view, flying mashed potatoes were pretty hilarious. From the other's, they were irksome and unpleasant. One thing remains true and absolute, however: the brown stain on that rug.

I'm grateful we live in a country where we're exposed to multiple narratives of the same event. If you attended school in the United States, you know the version from traditional history books. But to gain another perspective, read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Reading multiple versions of the same event provides the nuance that turns history into something real, rather than a fable or fairy tale.

For example, jast week I was having a conversation with another attorney about the repeal by President Trump of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which removed administrative immigration protections for undocumented young people (the Dreamers) who came to the United States as young children. We had two different narratives on the repeal. The other attorney thought it was a fantastic idea because it would force Congress to finally create a permanent solution to the seemingly needless problem. I considered it a horrible idea because I thought it would create uncertainty in the lives of many people whose lives were already uncertain, and I fear Congress will not actually come up with a solution.

The most interesting thing to me was that we both agreed that there should be a clear, secure legal path to citizenship for children brought to the United States and raised as Americans. However, in 20 years, the history books may only focus on one of our narratives, just as the image of the grateful Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down in peace to feast predominates over the darker elements of the Thanksgiving story. .

I was raised on a Thanksgiving of cooperation between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. Squanto provided a bridge between the two cultures and taught the Pilgrims necessary agricultural skills for the New World. The story is sort of correct, another part of the narrative is that Plymouth appeared like a "blessing" to the Pilgrims because the land was clear and ready for cultivation. The "blessing" was the extermination of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe by smallpox. Squanto, the sole remaining member of the Patuxet, survived because he had been captured as a slave and sent to Spain. He made it back to England and spent several years there learning English before returning to his home a couple of years before the Pilgrims’ arrival. He was viewed suspiciously by the Wampanoag tribe and was basically under house arrest when the Pilgrims arrived. His diplomacy because his path to freedom.

This Thanksgiving story encapsulates our country’s history: a history of death, slavery, survival, personal freedom, cooperation and conflicting interests of different social groups. Everyone who tells the tale is correct in some way. It's also a Thanksgiving story that provides the perfect backdrop for the offerings of gratitude around the Thanksgiving Day table.

Thursday, our daughter Megan took over providing the family Thanksgiving Day meal. She did this in the midst of much personal upheaval in her life. Knowing all she's going through, we marveled at the feast she was able to provide. We gathered together, the children grabbed the drumsticks, we enjoyed each other’s company, and we all felt truly grateful — not because everything was perfect, but because we were together, creating a Thanksgiving narrative within our small group, in all its messy, complicated and nuanced glory.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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