A World of Gratitude
When this big, multicultural family gets together for Thanksgiving, the table is laden with more than turkey and gravy.
by Marybeth Lambe
From the kitchen, I heard Shen Bo bumping down the stairs and singing the song he’d been crooning all day long. I assumed he made it up himself, since he was the star of the tune. “Shen Bo builds it all by himself,” he warbled as he scooted down another step on his rear. “Shen Bo, they all sing. You are the best.”
I would have been laughing at his mammoth egotism, but this was his ninth trip down since bedtime. And it was midnight on Thanksgiving eve.
At first, none of our kids thought much of Thanksgiving. A holiday where no one gets presents? An interminable meal where the adults blather on for hours and the food is all disgustingly bland? No, thanks. In our multiethnic, multicultural (Spanish/Irish/ African-American/Mongolian/Indian/ Chinese/Russian/Jewish/Buddhist/Catholic/pagan) family, lively festivities are always just around the bend.
But our celebration has evolved over the years. Earlier that morning we had all decorated the farmhouse, as we do every year on the day before Thanksgiving. This year, Shen Bo was in charge of centerpiece design. He decided to gather the molting chickens’ feathers and glue them into vaguely turkey-like shapes. Unfortunately, he left them drying on the living room floor, and we later discovered that our dog had sat on them. Seeing a full-blown fit coming on, I launched into my mommy ritual.
“Why, Shen Bo,” I gushed. “You have engineered the most amazing candlestick wreaths. I don’t think anyone has ever been as clever as you.” I sneaked a glance at his accompanying flower bouquet. “And the feathers pick up the colors in your garland.”
That was because he had picked a posy of gray and brown weeds. My acting was so brilliant that Shen Bo was soon puffing out his little chest. Soon after, he began touting his greatness through the familiar song.
The big day
Thanksgiving dawns, clear and bright, and the kids troop outdoors to build huts from branches and leaves. This is in honor of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. It also keeps the younger children out from underfoot for a few hours as we finish preparations.
One of our guests this year has just returned from Peace Corps duties in the Philippines. At breakfast this morning, he taught the kids about Bonifacio Day. It’s celebrated on November 30, in honor of Andrés Bonifacio, who led the Filipino fight for independence from the Spaniards. Judging by the blood-curdling screams wafting in from the west pasture, it seems they are reenacting the battle. At least they are still in play clothes.
Inside, Chengming is reviewing the menu. Each family member gets to choose one item to be served at our feast. Most prefer exotic food, except for poor John, who lists his “one” entrée as “mashedpotatoeswithgravyandstuffingandturkeyandrolls.”
Last night, the older boys whipped up Heng-yang spicy scallops, onion naan, dhal, and a Chinese dish called “tinkling bells,” while I dealt with the relatively mundane turkey. I also managed to bake a chocolate cake, which I plan on bringing out late in the dessert parade, in the hope that everyone except me will be too full to eat it.
The guests arrive
As afternoon draws to a close, the older girls line the path across the pasture with rows of luminaries to venerate the Indian holiday of Deepawali. We are paying homage to Satyabhama, who defeated the demon after her husband, Lord Krishna, had knocked himself unconscious. My daughters dig this holiday. The lights also keep our guests from veering off the beaten path and into cow-manure limbo.
As our company tries the varied appetizers, Yuanjun and Chengming give a performance about the Autumn Moon festival. Although this harvest festival is normally observed in September, we all agree it compliments our Thanksgiving rituals splendidly. Chengming adds that it is also known as the Women’s Festival, since the moon symbolizes feminine beauty and elegance. Yuanjun seems to feel the girls have gotten enough credit already, and he “accidentally” heaves Chengming to the floor. Rohit quickly breaks up the scuffle, but not before my parents launch into their familiar “When I was a child” lecture.
By now, you have gathered that our holiday traditions are far from orthodox. But these rituals proclaim, “This is who we are,” and they sanctify our faith in our family. Traditions can be handed down, but they can also evolve. Traditions can be nothing more than “we always” statements, as in: “We always give the animals a feast on Christmas Eve” or “We always make homemade gifts for Kwanzaa.” They become folklore for generations to follow, even if for nothing more than to say: “When I was a child….” Traditions may be small, but they add up to something powerful and truthful. More than blood, origin, or the daily conflicts of people living together, rituals are the force that binds a family.
After dinner, we gather in the living room again and soon find ourselves following familiar paths of conversation. Someone brings up the losses of Native Americans and opines that this day is likely a ceremony of grieving for many tribes. Someone else brings up Mexico’s autumn holiday, Day of the Dead, and Canada’s Remembrance Day.
And because my family is what it is, we inevitably swing back to laughter and silly jokes. This year, as the children head off to bed, one by one, each recites a poem he or she has written. I must end with Shen Bo, who started this whole tale. He clears his throat and reads in a soft voice:
We gather to love, to eat, and to pray.
The boys may have lost the battles
But my family wins the wars
By holding hands together.
We are together
Like the circle of my beautiful centerpiece
Like the soft flowers Zeus destroyed
[Here he pauses to glare at the unsuspecting dog.]
My family’s love is soft
My family’s love is strong.
After a pause, he adds, “In case you didn’t know, guests, my mom hid the chocolate cake all for herself. I guess she’s going to have her own Thanksgiving later tonight.” And before I know it, he’s scampering up the stairs. Amid the laughter, I can faintly hear him singing.
Marybeth Lambe, M.D., is a family physician and writer. She lives with her husband, Mark, and their children on an organic dairy farm in Washington State.
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