The days of paper turkeys and pilgrims on the fridge are long gone.
Gone, too, are the days when children arrive from college for Thanksgiving, backpacks bulging, laundry stuffed in a pillowcase or a trash bag, grateful like you won’t believe for a free washing machine, a slow meal and a respite, brief as it may be, from tests and term papers.
Children grow up (and we are thankful they do), and year by year, they weave work, distance and new families into their own traditions. And so these days, my Thanksgivings are framed by question marks: Will anyone make it home? Will this be the year they all come home?
Thirty-one years ago, new to the United States, I experienced for the first time the novelty of a national day set aside especially to give thanks. I was familiar with all kinds of religious holidays, harvest festivals and national days, but a day for counting blessings? We all get together around a whole turkey? This was great! Talk about American exceptionalism! In the next years, we pieced together our own family Thanksgiving routines and tradition — including time to count blessings and name them one by one before the turkey got cold.
The novelty of it all has worn off, as you might guess. Turkey, yam and cranberry sales. Black Friday creeping over Thursday. Christmas wreaths and cinnamon pine cones. Some years, it has felt as if Thanksgiving just might slip past, a pause and a nod on the calendar to blessings we can name and many we forget.
There is a story I’ve heard more times than I care to say about a preacher who was on a road trip. On the outskirts of one village, he happened upon a group of men who were shouting to him. They were keeping a respectable distance. It turned out they were asking for help. Lepers who were not permitted to enter the village, they needed a medical miracle. A quick cure of the infectious skin disease would enable them resume communal life as part of the village. The preacher understood their predicament. An acclaimed healer, he told them to go into town, anyway, and present themselves to the officials authorized to certify them disease-free and fit to live again among humanity.
So the men took off, 10 of them. But on the way, they noticed they weren’t lepers anymore. Whatever it was the preacher did or said, it had worked to alter their condition. They were free to go wherever they wanted, to pick up from where job and family life had been derailed by a devastating disease. Understanding this, one of the men, beside himself with joy, raced back to find and thank the healer.
As Luke tells it in his Gospel, the healer, Jesus, looking around and seeing none of the others leaping back in praise and gratitude, asked: “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?”
Tough question. At times, I try to imagine what it must feel like to be one of the nine lepers — maybe hours or days after the meaning of the miracle has sunk in — coming to realize you had neglected the simplest of all responses, the heartfelt “thank you” that rises unbidden for a good turn, a favor, expected and unexpected, a kind word. It’s an awful feeling to recognize the ingrate within, to know that in some situations you are fully capable of acting the child who needs a “what do you say?” prompt to acknowledge a gift received.
Meister Eckhart, the German mystic, is credited with saying that “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ it would suffice.” And a ceaseless prayer it will have to be. Gratitude is a condition of the heart, after all, developed through constant practice.
In my imagination, what happened to the Missing Nine was that they were so taken with what they were going through at the time, the experience crowded out everything else, including gratitude to the healer who made it all possible.
As this Thanksgiving Day rolls around, many of us are still licking our wounds or savoring victories after an election season so harsh some have wondered if healing is possible in our country. If you ask me about gratitude, I will have to say: In addition to family and friends, to turkeys whole and parts, let me not forget to thank God Almighty for a country that has learned to absorb dissent in all its hot fury.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.