Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cranberries and Sharing

Native Americans prized cranberries—or Sassamanash as they called them—for their natural preservative power. By mixing crushed cranberries with dried meat, they could extend the meat’s shelf life, which is why pemmican was one of their diet staples. The local Wampanoag Indians generously introduced the Pilgrims to these precious berries and many other native foods to keep them from starving.

Turkey gets all the press around Thanksgiving (even if it’s just an article about having a turkey-less feast). But as much as I like the big bird and all the trimmings that go with it, the real focal point of the day for me is the people I spend it with. It’s about taking the time, making the effort to gather—and by doing so to say, “I’m happy that you’re in my life.”

I know that there are those who find Thanksgiving to be more curse than blessing. Many people don’t enjoy their family, or don’t have deep friendships, which I’m sure can make the day seem hollow. And not everyone even wants to celebrate the traditional way.

But for me, I love the whole custom—which may stem from the Normal Rockwell-ish celebrations of my childhood. When I was a kid, most of my relatives lived in Baltimore. My family moved from there in 1960, but wherever we were, we made the drive to Maryland for Thanksgiving.

Rerunning those days through the projector of my memory, I smile at how well they mirror the era. The women stayed in the kitchen and dining room, preparing the food and tables while catching up with each other and sharing family gossip. Remembering my grandmother’s extremely cramped kitchen, it’s a mystery how they managed. The men sat in the living room, watching football and drinking beer. They too, were catching up with each other and sharing family gossip, though in their “how’s business?” manly way.

Meanwhile, the kids went down to the finished basement to create the entertainment for after dinner. We were an imaginative bunch, using the dress-up clothes my grandmother saved for us and adding any other props we could find. The basement’s configuration offered the perfect setting for our homemade theater. There was a big, open space bounded by a wall of built-in storage benches at the back. Above the benches were curtained windows. Behind this wall was a narrow area where the washer, dryer and pantry all were. When it was time for the play to begin, we put chairs in the open space for our audience, used the benches as our stage and the laundry area as our dressing room.

All these years later, I have no idea of what our plays were about. What I do have, though, is warm, wonderful memories of being with my cousins and creating something together. And of course, basking in the applause of our parents and grandparents. What kid doesn’t remember the praise?

Not all my Thanksgivings have been great, of course. There was the teenage one spent in the hospital—though I did get to eat my first solid meal that day and I don’t think turkey has ever tasted better. And there have been years where the shadow of loss has darkened the celebration of abundance. But all in all, I have been blessed with happy days spent among family and friends.

I wonder if we would even bother to commemorate this day nearly 400 years later if the Pilgrims and Native Americans hadn’t held a joint, end-of-harvest celebration. After all, it was that spirit of sharing, of cooperation and gratitude that prompted the first Thanksgiving. (Too bad future dealings with this continent’s indigenous people didn’t demonstrate the same respect.)

It’s that same spirit we try to recapture when we come together to share our food and our time on Thanksgiving Day. A tradition I hope is preserved for another 400 years.

Pass the Sassamanash, please.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day and Influence

Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, is celebrated on November 11 because that’s when the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end the First World War. Unlike Memorial Day, which honors those who have died in service to this country, Veterans Day honors all military personnel, living and dead.

Since today is Veterans’ Day, it seems appropriate to write about my father, a Korean War vet. Thankfully during his military service, he was a supply sergeant—a job that kept him far enough away from the front that he could return without the physical or emotional trauma faced by so many others.

After the war, he married my mother, started the family I was to become a part of and went into sales to support the five of us.

Traveling was a part of his job for as long as I can remember. His territory changed and expanded as he moved up the corporate ladder and we moved from city to city. But the job still called for many nights away from his family and on the road.

When my father returned from his sales trips, he often had stories about people he met while on the road. Eating alone in a restaurant night after night was not his idea of fun, so he sometimes found other traveling salesmen (and they were all men at that time) to converse with over dinner. By sharing their stories with us, we learned about interesting products, new industries, different parts of the country and so much more.

Looking back at that simple act of sharing knowledge, I realize what an impact it’s had on my life. I seem to have an insatiable curiosity about most everything. Even things that aren’t inherently interesting—Velcro for example—can be fascinating when you start to learn more. (Case in point: After a hunting trip in 1948, George de Mestral removed the burrs that stuck to his pants and looked at them under a microscope. He observed little hooks on the burrs that grabbed onto the loops of the fabric. Shortly thereafter, Velcro was born.)

You may notice from my tidbits each week and even the content of some of my posts that I have fairly wide-ranging interests. I thank my father in part for this.

I feel my father’s influence as well when I talk to people I don’t know at parties, weddings, bars, on airplanes (sometimes) and at other places where we share time together. I believe most everyone has an interesting story to tell if you ask the right questions and take the time to listen. Engaging strangers in conversation often rewards me with good stories—or at least pleasant interactions with my fellow humans.

I’m sure as my father was relaying the lives of the people he met all those years ago, he had no idea of the effect he was having on his family. He was just being himself, talking about what he found to be interesting.

When you think about it, that’s often how we pass on habits, traditions, traits, and everything else we do that inspires or motivates someone else. It’s the small things—the unheralded moments—where we show the true nature of ourselves that often have the greatest impact.

For that, and thousands of other reasons, I will be eternally grateful that I get to celebrate my father on Veterans Day instead of Memorial Day. I only wish so many others could have been that fortunate.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Halloween Traditions and Playfulness

Hundreds of years ago, Europeans believed that ghosts returned to the earthly world on Halloween night. Anyone who had to leave their house after dark donned a mask, hoping the spirits would mistake them for one of their own. To prevent the ghouls from entering their homes, people set bowls of food outside their doors.

I’ve almost finished putting away the Halloween stuff, which is no small feat considering that we have eight bins of decorations and lights, not to mention all of the oversized skeletons, tombstones, witches, etc. It’s a lot of work to decorate and undecorate every year, but I have so much fun, it’s worth it.

Our front yard provides the perfect spooky setting. We have a 10’ concrete retaining wall in front with a few ominous cracks caused by the shifting ground beneath us. Wrought iron fencing tops the wall along the street and up the first stairwell. Mature palm trees grow throughout the yard, with the fronds of the elephant palm hanging above the lower stairs. At the top is a landing, then another set of stairs leading up to our front porch.

From the street, you can see fake spider webs on the concrete wall, plus orange and purple lights that outline the wrought iron, porch railing and front of the house. As the trick-or-treaters open the iron gate—which creaks, naturally—and walk up the steps, they’re greeted with a graveyard on one side and a lit pumpkin patch on the other. On the porch is another scene involving a skeleton, rats, a giant bat and a disembodied head that talks to anyone who gets close enough to it. The kids are so engrossed in the decorations that they forget they’ve just walked up two flights of steps.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed hearing the little gremlins’ comments as they enter our haunted homestead. One of my favorites was a boy about five or six who told me that he didn’t think the yard was as spooky as it had been the last year. I feigned surprise that he wasn’t scared, then caught his father’s eye and shared a smile. Neither of us pointed out that he was a year older and prepared for what had obviously given him a fright the year before.

My all-time favorite comment, though, came from a little girl about three years old. After receiving her candy, her mother prompted with, “What do you say?” to which the little one replied, “I wanna eat ‘dis!” Now that’s genuine gratitude, child-style.

As much as I enjoy the trick-or-treaters, I have even more fun at the adult party, which we usually throw the weekend before. There are a core of about 30 of us who attend every year, though some years bring in even bigger crowds.

While we make it clear that costumes are optional, I love that the vast majority of my friends get into the spirit of the day and dress up. Costumes range from traditional to clever to topical—both balloon boy and Octomom were here this year.

Often the costumes lead to impromptu live theater. When three escaped convicts appeared at this year’s party, things began to disappear, including several of Octomom’s babies. (Don’t worry, the one in the freezer was rescued before any permanent damage was done.) Shakespeare might have had my friends in mind when he penned the line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Providing the setting for friends to allow their playful spirits to emerge is what makes the party preparations worthwhile. We may not don our masks and capes and wigs for the weeks leading up to Halloween like the young ones do, but we have fun memories and laughs to enjoy for weeks, months, sometimes years later.

That seems much better than a bowl of food for keeping unpleasant and fearful forces from entering our lives.