This column comes to you from my local library, where the view through the window is incandescent leaves falling in a playful wind against a sky of cloudless blue. I find myself floating with the leaves as half a century slips away.
Like that, I’m standing beside the farm canal that was my boyhood Amazon, peering up at an old cottonwood tree and waiting for leaves as big as salad plates to lose their grip in the autumn breeze. This is how the season of Thanksgiving begins. Teacher assigns us to collect leaves of red, gold, orange and russet. After pressing them for a few days between the pages of the encyclopedia, we’ll paste them to sheets of construction paper for display on the bulletin board.
It’s 1967 and the world is going to hell: race riots, senseless murders, a faraway war, an unpopular president. Somewhere across the ocean there’s a nuclear missile aimed in my direction. But I have other business laid out for me. There is the delicate matter of tracing my hand and transforming it into a turkey — more construction paper, more paste. And there’s a pageant to rehearse involving a story (partially true) about a ship called Mayflower, a cold and deadly winter, and a friendly Native American named Squanto.
The world is going to hell, but the adults in my life have something more important to teach a 6-year-old boy in dungarees and PF Flyers. I’m being initiated into a venerable tradition, a season of rituals leading up to a solemn moment. After the leaves and the tracing and the pageant will come the baking of the pies, the stuffing of the bird, the setting of the formal table. In the kitchen, Mom’s culinary marathon will stretch from early morning well into the afternoon amid dizzying scents of roasting turkey, warming rolls and bubbling green-bean casserole.
Then her starched and ironed tablecloth will disappear beneath a jigsaw puzzle of platters, serving bowls, bread baskets and butter dishes. I will be delirious with hunger and excitement and visions of the gravy lake I’ll build in my mashed potatoes.
But wait. Not yet.
Not a bite will be eaten until every person at the table takes a turn at giving thanks.
Today, I am thankful for that initiation, which pointed me toward a truth I might have needed years, or even a lifetime, to work out for myself. Long before scientists devised experiments to measure the health effects of gratitude, I was steered to an understanding that happiness is not something we acquire, nor is it bestowed on us. It’s a muscle to be exercised, a habit to be formed.
Over the past two decades, researchers have confirmed the cultural wisdom conferred through pipe-cleaner turkeys and pumpkin pies. In studies of adults and children — even patients with debilitating diseases — expressions of gratitude have been found to ease depression, lower blood pressure and foster a sense of well-being. Grateful people are more likely to exercise regularly and sleep soundly. In spite of the butter, sugar and salt, Thanksgiving may be the healthiest holiday of all.
A confounding fact of modern life is that abundance can make it harder, rather than easier, to be grateful. The more stuff there is, the more of it we don’t have. People say the United States has lost its manufacturing edge, but no one beats us at the mass production of envy. If it’s true, as some experts say, that the millennial generation values life experience over piling up things, this will be the sanest generation in my lifetime.
For if you listen to folks at their Thanksgiving tables, it’s not swag or merch they care about most. People are grateful for human connections and moments of beauty. We give thanks for role models and mentors and people who care. After the floods of Texas and fires of California, I spent a couple of days asking people what they would grab if their home was about to be destroyed. No one said the flat-screen TV or the Honyaki sashimi knife. They all mentioned keepsakes and mementos of loved ones.
What’s more, the further I get from that long-ago boy with his eye on the golden leaves, the more grateful I am for things I didn’t receive, and the thwarting of some dreams. If I had gotten everything I wished fervently for at some point in my life, I would have attended the wrong college, pursued the wrong career, married the wrong woman. Garth Brooks is right when he sings about the gift of unanswered prayers.
Now the sky outside the window has gone gray. The sun is low and the leaves have stopped glowing. I leave that boy under the tree beside the canal and return to 2017 — where the world is still going to hell, and it’s a wonderful time to give thanks.
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