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.

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