Thanksgiving and Remembrance
I was having mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. Partly because this is our first Thanksgiving without my dad. Last year ’s Thanksgiving dinner was our last celebration with my ninety year old father. He fell one week before Christmas, and died one week after Christmas. So, I miss him. We all miss him. We will miss his Thanksgiving prayer he would always pray before our feast. We will even miss the way he would eat, then immediately after he was finished eating, say, “Well, I’m ready to go now.” Fortunately my husband Ted, conveniently an introvert, never minded leaving the family celebration, and driving dad home.
This morning, as I was beginning my Thanksgiving preparations, and thinking of dad, and feeling a little sad, I got a phone call from my friend, Laura, whose daughter, Meg,who is like another daughter to me, had just given birth to a baby boy! This baby is named Raymond Michael, after another beloved father figure, Meg’s grandfather, Ray, who died almost ten years ago. This was a man at church who embraced me and my three young children as part of his family when I was the new single mom pastor. My children, like Laura’s, also called him “Pops,” and when asked to draw her family tree at kindergarten,my five year old included Pops, Laura, Meg and her brothers. So today we are all rejoicing at the birth of baby Raymond Michael. Sadness, grief, remembrance. Joy, new life, thanksgiving. The circle of life continues, and is filled with the yin and yang of both sides of life, in their complex, ever-flowing dance of opposites.
I always have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving for other reasons too. For about twenty-five years I have been practicing Native American spirituality along with Christianity. This is because of two amazing Native American women who had a deep influence on me: Nighthawk Flying, whom I met at Calumet Camp and Conference Center, in West Ossippee, NH, and was friends with for many years, and Sister Jose Hobday, whom I met at the Center for Creation Centered Spirituality in Oakland, CA. Both of these women were spiritual teachers and mentors for me. For the past twenty-five years I have begun each day by going outside, in all kinds of weather, and praying Native American prayers, which Sister Jose Hobday had taught me. Over the years, I have taught these prayers to many.
These two women and other Native friends have made me aware that for our Native American sisters and brothers, “Thanksgiving” is a day of deep mourning, of deep remembrance. Remembrance of the gracious, sharing, giving spirit of Native peoples at that first Thanksgiving, and remembrance of how that graciousness received a response of Thanksgiving from some of the Pilgrims, but from far more of the white settlers received a response of fear, resentment, cruelty, brutality, violence, slaughter, banishment from their own land, and ultimately theft of that land. For many years now, more and more people have become aware of this “other side” to Thanksgiving.
When one person tells me I should see a film or read a book, I hear her. When two, then three tell me the same thing, I really pay attention. Recently I received a threefold invitation from two friends from very different circles to read Howard Zinn’s A Peoples’ History of the United States, 1492-Present. Then last month when I heard Alice Walker speak at Ghost Ranch (see previous blogs), we also viewed a documentary film about her life, The Beauty of Truth: The Life of Alice Walker, by Director Pratibha Parmar. One of the men featured in the film was none other than Howard Zinn, who just happened to be Alice Walker’s history professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, during the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, Alice Walker transferred to Sarah Laurence in NYC, because her activism in the Civil Rights movement jeopardized her scholarship at Spelman, and Zinn was fired from Spelman because of his support of the activists, and ended up teaching at Boston University for the rest of his teaching career. Zinn’s People’s History tells history from “the other side.” Many of us in this post-modern, post-Christian world acknowledge that “history” has come down to us from a white,European, educated, elite, male perspective, so of course it has focused on what this small segment of the human population considered important: wars, male leaders and politicians, conquests, economic development, and the “achievements” (in their own estimation) of white, European educated, elite males. Zinn’s United States history is written from the perspective of the rest of us, the majority: Native Americans, blacks, poor and middle class whites, and women. I am only on Chapter seven of this book, but I have already ordered lots of copies for this year’s Christmas presents for my family and friends.
So…I challenge you to have mixed feelings about “Thanksgiving.” I challenge you to celebrate it, but with a HUGE twist. As we gather around tables and gorge ourselves into oblivion, may we all remember the hungry, and bring to our feasts food to share with our local food pantries. As we worry about what to wear to these celebrations, may we remember to bring an extra coat for our local Thrift Shop or church coat drive. This is what the coordinator of our church Thrift Shop and Food Pantry suggests. As we ask the matriarch or patriarch of the family to say the Thanksgiving prayer, may we each give thanks for our many blessings, yes. But may we also have a long pause of remembrance for those we love who are no longer at the table with us. But may we also have a long pause in solidarity with our Native sisters and brothers. May we remember with gratitude the gift of their ancestors’ graciousness, help, and peace shared with our ancestors, and to also offer a prayer of confession, for the sins of those who received their graciousness with hostility. May we offer a gift of making amends, of pledging ourselves to raise awareness about the real story of that first “Thanksgiving,” and of moving forward in a way that follows the example of graciousness. May Thursday be a day of sadness, grief, and remembrance. May it also be a day of joy, new life and thanksgiving.
Linda Forsberg, Copyright November 25, 2014
Photos: Thanksgiving at my house, 2012; my uncle Ray, Dad, and my husband Ted, at Thanksgiving, 2012; baby Raymond Michael, a few hours old, and his dad, Mike; Sister Jose Hobday; walking trails at retreat center, West Hartford, MA; Howard Zinn; Alice Walker with Dr. Melanie Harris, me with my friend Steph Smith;my grand baby Lola’s feet in my hand