Holidays breed memories, fetching the past into the present so you can think about it with relief or regret and usually some of both.
The merrier and more loving Christmas is, the more I am haunted by Christmas past and by the family and friends who were once part of the day and are no more. It becomes the most melancholy day of the year, and I have to shake myself back to present laughter, grateful for the grandchildren who are only now acquiring their own memories.
Thanksgiving used to be a day of nice, simple complacency. You thought of all the things you had to be thankful for and then you ate yourself silly.
Complacency is harder to come by now. There may be an overlay of affluence that did not exist in the '30s when I was growing up, but the overlay grows more transparent all the time.
Unless you live in a sealed house and do not read, listen, watch or think, you cannot be unaware of the homeless, the unattended sick, the wretchedly educated young in an apparently permanent underclass which is not limited by race, creed, color or geography and is united by hopelessness.
Almost as cruel (because it represents the death of hope and confidence), there is the shabby genteel poverty of the men and women who, having worked hard and saved, thought they had provided for their golden years. Instead, they inherit a pinched existence on fixed incomes, and surface briefly in the newspapers when they are evicted from properties that are being converted to yield a higher rate of return.
Most dismaying of all is a feeling that the national philosophy that pledged the society to take care of its least and weakest members has been replaced by a hard-eyed pragmatism that says the Lord helps those who help themselves and puts social services well down the list of priorities, significantly below armaments.
It's hard to feel complacent or satisfied amid the grief that confronts you on the streets and in the alleys and the parks of this city and every other. Anger comes quicker at the idea that so little gets done, relative to the need, beyond the temporary blessings of a hot meal or one night's shelter.
In fact Thanksgiving seems ready for a new focus, addressed not to those who have much to be thankful for but to those who don't. Actually, it would be a return to the share-the-blessings spirit that, if the schoolbooks were right, launched the holiday in colonial times.
There are signs of an enlightened awareness. The cities, hamstrung as they are by their own bureaucracies, are beginning (once in a while with some ingenuity) to see what can be done about the homeless. In this they are following and being goaded by the private organizations that have come to represent the public conscience.
Nothing under the sun seems unprecedented. Thinking about Thanksgivings past, I have been remembering the families, not homeless but rootless, who appeared in Hammondsport, my hometown in Upstate New York, in the '30s. The Depression had made them nomads and they came, often from the cities, in search of jobs, work, cheaper rents.
They lived in the dark, dank apartments over the stores or in the rackety houses on the fringes of town. They had kids who, after a period of awkwardness, became friends--exotic friends, sometimes, with tales of a kind of big city life we knew nothing about, told in the strange, hard accents of Brooklyn.
Then, as suddenly as they arrived, they moved on. It was sometimes so fast that pals of mine never even got to say goodby. I think now it was probably departure by night, a step ahead of eviction for unpaid rent. The kids seldom wrote later, and I have to guess that it was because the families didn't want to be pursued about the bills they left behind.
I wonder often about Albert and Bobby, and Peavey and Murray and Willie and Lillian. The war provided jobs in and out of uniform, and I hope things finally went better for their families. It is a reasonable guess that things did. If my pals have survived until now, they may have their own grounds for thanksgiving, as well as a painfully knowing sympathy for the nomads of a later day.