Thanksgiving perspective

It started out as ‘one of those days’…

I got up early and went to make a cup of coffee only to find that there was not one coffee bean to be had. It really bothers me when people in my house use up things and don’t let anyone know.  There are certain things you just can’t live without.  For me, coffee is definitely on that list. Other than the common things like eggs and milk, which I suspect many people also regularly run out of, we regularly run out of things not only like coffee, but also things like salt and pepper. How do you run out of salt and pepper?

Needless to say, I trudge over to my computer coffeeless to finish up some work I had spent a couple hours on the night before.  Just as I sit down and diligently start typing to polish off this work… Poof!  My computer starts to shut down. Not the infamous ‘blue screen of death’, just a simple “I am going to shut down now, not because you asked me to, but just because I, the computer, am tired and want a break”.

The windows are flashing and the screen is turning all kinds of pretty colors as my computer continues to taunt me with its silent, sporadic tirade…”Of course I am not going to ask you if you want to save any of your work, I am just going to systematically start closing all your applications while you sit idly by watching them close, one by one.  Don’t you worry, I am not saving anything you have been working on nor am I going to give you the option to.  No combination of keystrokes you can think of is going to stop me, your computer, from taking my nap.”

The blinking white screen continues to mock me as I desperately hit random keys, hovering over my weary computer with bated breath until the blackness swoops in and my fatigued foe finally turns itself off. Just out of shear spite I restart my computer trying to deny it the nap it apparently thought it deserved. Nothing.

At this point I just need to get out of the house so I decide to get an early jump on my visit to my grandmother. Let me just preface this by saying that while I do love seeing her, I have to admit I don’t get there as often as I should.  Work, family, weather…If it’s not one thing, it’s another.  Besides, she lives in a place where I am lucky to get even one bar of cell reception.   It’s hard not to be ‘connected’; I get quite anxious about not being able to get to my email or missing an important text message. The sad thing is my grandmother, and probably many of yours are too understanding and accepting of the fact that life gets in the way of regular weekly visits.  The good news is now I have an excuse to show up early AND I will definitely be able to get coffee someplace along the way!  Now that is definitely what I call killing two birds with one stone.

I get in my car and I am off but unfortunately I am one of those people that does a lot of my deeper thinking on the road.  Let me tell you that this is a blessing and a curse!  Now as I peacefully drive along, I am starting to stress out a little about Thanksgiving, which is going to be upon us soon.  Who can blame me?  The personality clashes and the concessions you have to make to ensure everyone survives the day unscathed.  Who is going to go where for the meal?   Who should we invite?  More importantly, who should we not invite?   What are the lifelong ramifications of these decisions?  Bottom line is having to face the inevitable drama. I just pray we can get through the day without incident.

Ahh, the golden arches!  Such blessed relief from my fearful thoughts and my parched throat.  I run through a drive through to get my coffee. I order cream in it, not so much for the taste of the cream, but more as a way to take the coffee that generally tastes like it was made yesterday down to a reasonable temperature. I am hoping for it to be a temperature where I can drink it without taking the skin off my lips.  I zip up to the window and quickly take the proffered coffee for fear of being one of those irritatingly slow people in the drive-through who check everything twice before slowing pulling away amidst a cacophony of beeping horns and distended middle fingers.

The drink holder should have been my first clue. Why did they give me a tray that would hold four drinks, with one coffee cup in it? Well, now I know…  Apparently McDonalds has invented cold fusion and they use that energy source to take their coffee to a temperature that I suspect can only be matched by the surface of the sun.  So when the Control Technician was extracting the coffee from the reactor, he must have realized that his oven mitts were not sufficient to insulate his hands from the boiling java. Therefore he needed to put it in an insulative tray in order to hand it out the window.  Unfortunately, I did not connect the dots until it was too late.

It had been kind-of a rough morning so I excitedly pulled the coffee out of the tray.  Ahhhhh!  It was so hot I screamed like a little girl and swerved across two lanes of traffic as I fought the urge to throw it down on the floor of my car.  Logic and the dread of an enormous carpet cleaning bill won out and still writhing in pain I got the cup slowly and safely back into its cradle.  I was literally still seeing stars as I swerved back into my own lane of traffic, so thankful that there was no one driving alongside me.  That’s when the pain really started to sink in.  I felt like someone took a red hot branding iron to my hand. I cautiously turn my had over to see if indeed I am now going to have to go through life with a big “M” burned into my palm. Surprisingly enough, it was just red and angry but no “M”.  I dodged a bullet with that one!

Whew!  So this is the third bad thing that happened to me today.  Third time is the charm, so I must be out of the woods now. Right?

Wrong!  I pull up to the toll plaza and notice long lines everywhere.  You know how you scan them all and try to calculate how fast each line will move, hoping you pick the faster one?  This principle is very similar to checking out at the grocery store.  You look for the most alert and fastest cashier and also try to find the checkout line with the fewest people and items.  Then I see it. Does anybody else? Only one car in the third lane!  How can this be?  How can everyone else not see it?  Why is there not a mass exodus from every other line to this one?

I decide to capitalize on this gift from God. Hey, after the morning I’ve had, I deserve it right?  I pull in behind this car, feeling very proud that I have just circumvented what could very well been a 1 or 2 minute wait.

Not so fast.  The car in front of me is not moving.  Ah, I figure they just pulled up and are just finishing paying.  Right? The car continues to not move. Another curious thing is I don’t see anyone in the car. The attendant is standing there as if there is not even a car present; as if the car in front of me does not exist. Have I stumbled upon a ghost car like you see in movies?  . Should I just try to drive through this apparition?

I inch my car forward. Then I see movement in the car in front of me and I stop. A head pops up in the passenger seat. What? They are on the wrong side of the car? Did I drive through a worm hole and end up in the UK? Suspecting this was not the case I return to my question. Where is the driver?

The head ducks back down. I am now scanning the other lines that I have avoided, praying I still get through this line ahead of everyone I skirted around.  Then it dawns on me. This person is foraging through their car to find 20 cents. After a few scant moments, she gives up and jumps back into the driver’s seat.

At this point I am getting prepared to just get out of my car and pay her toll.  That’s when she hands a credit card out her window…

Cars that would have been behind me ha I stayed in the other lanes have already moved through the toll plaza.  Wow, another epic fail on my part.   But now I am fascinated.  I am waiting for the attendant to reject her use of a credit card where I can then swoop in with my two dimes to save the day and get on my way.

Mr. Stoic takes the card.  I don’t know how to feel.  Are you serious? You can pay your 20 cent toll with a credit card? Well at least there is a resolution to this nightmare but it’s not over yet. Apparently while they do take credit cards, they do not have electronic machines to process them. The next few minutes tick by exponentially slowly as Mr. Stoic swipes the card the old fashion way where you  ratchet the imprinter back and forth to get an impression of the cards number on the credit card slip. I can’t even imagine what the operator’s response is when the attendant calls and asks for authorization on 20 cents. If her card bounces I am going to end up in jail from committing a double homicide. I can’t believe he could even have this conversation with the operator without cracking a smile.

She signs and then hands it back to the attendant. He then returns her card to her. Ok, it’s over. Amen!

Nope, it’s not over. Now she has to put the card back into her purse. My guess is she had them sorted alphabetically and this one probably starts with a semi-colon and she is unsure how to sort it. Homicide is again looking more likely. Just before I snap and mow her car down with mine, she mercifully moves on.

This entire process probably took 4 or 5 minutes. But felt like 4 or 5 hours.  Apparently this day is cursed

The good news is I do eventually make it to my grandmother’s house. Emotionally and physically drained, I flop down next to her and I start to tell her about my day so far. She listens because awesomely, that’s what grandmothers do best.  She is 95 years old; she will be 96 in a few weeks and has all of her faculties about her.  No dementia and she is living on her own. No impairment at all other than she is walking a little slower each year. Man, I hope I have gotten some of her genes!

After I finish my dramatic little discourse about coffee and my dread of the upcoming holidays, she then completely in a non-condescending way, starts to reminisce about her life.  I emphasize that she is in no way dismissing me or what I have been complaining about, she is simply sharing, imparting her story in a flat, factual tone.

She is a first generation immigrant from the Ukraine. Her parents came over to America around 1910 or so and she was born a few years later. She describes to me how she and her sisters would fight over fresh cow pies. Cow pies, for those of you who might not know this particular farm lingo, are what farmers call piles of cow poop.  Because they had no shoes (shoes were only worn for Church on Sunday, which you never missed by the way) and these cow pies were warm, they would push each other around to stand in them. If you were really lucky you could then stand behind a cow while it urinated in order to clean your feet off before the horse and carriage picked you up for school. The fact of the matter was, despite the extreme cold and lack of shoes, they were blessed to even be able to attend school and they knew it. Thank God for America.

My grandparents (and many other families of their time and region) used to have lots of kids. Not because they were unaware of how babies were made, but life was so hard, chances were not all children would survive to adulthood and the more hands you had to work and contribute to the family, the better off you’d be.   Of the seven brothers and sisters she had, only four of my grandmother’s siblings made it into their teens. She does not even remember how any of them died; apparently children dying was not at all uncommon or particularly noteworthy.

My grandfather, who passed a couple years ago at the age of 93, she told me, had to drop out of school before he could finish the 10th grade. His father got hurt and they needed my grandfather to help support the family. I have five kids, all past 10th grade, and I cannot even fathom them at that age taking this kind of responsibility on. My grandfather was never able to return to school. A high school diploma for them at that time was like people getting doctorate degrees today. I think she said only one of his seven brothers and sisters got a high school diploma.  Each day his mother would start making a soup or stew. Whatever my grandfather would return with from hunting all day was the type of stew it would be. Sometimes rabbit, sometimes squirrel, sometimes raccoon and sometimes nothing.

My grandmother has seen over her life time the introduction of things like electricity, paved roads, indoor plumbing, automobiles, airplanes, television…  While some of these existed before she was born, most people in this country did not have these things immediately. Probably like VCRs in the 70’s. They existed, but it was not until ten or fifteen years later that they were present in most households. Her family and all of the ones she knew of, were never anywhere near the first to have any of these monumental inventions.

All of a sudden a feeling of such shame washed over me.  I couldn’t believe that such inconsequential little things had bothered me earlier that day. How could my perspective on life be so skewed? I felt like a spoiled, pretentious brat. I did not know what true hardships were, having never experienced them.  Running out of Keurig coffee cups, getting a first degree burn and the gall of having to actually wait in line for more than a minute were not true hardships.

My grandmother continued on without even a glimmer of condemnation, her next topic was Thanksgiving.  I was expecting her to describe how these holidays were filled with talk about how hard of a life they were forced to live.  No shoes, no heat, no car, little education, working from sunup to sundown.  I thought she would complain about these things just like we complain about slow internet connections or how our kids whine when our SUVs don’t have a built in DVD player.

This was not at all the case. She didn’t list any of her hardships or utter one complaint. She spoke of how Thanksgiving was not about the food, or who was invited or what they had, Thanksgiving was about being together and thanking God that you had another year of each other’s company. There was no drama. There were no arguments about who would make what for dinner. No decisions about where it would be held. There was no concept of anyone feeling disrespected or anyone holding any kind of animosity towards anyone. I am not suggesting she gave me the impression there was no conflicts and everyone always got along, but just that these were overshadowed by the gathering itself.

What they ate, or did not eat, did not matter. What they could afford, or not afford, was irrelevant. There was also no envy of anyone who had things they did not.  There was fascination over who had one of those new automobiles, but not envy or any sense of entitlement.  What mattered, and what the holiday was about to them, was embracing the blessing of the current people you had around you. People of this time were very aware, young or old, that this might be someone’s last thanksgiving. They treated each of these holidays as if it was their last, or the last one for someone sitting at the table. They left with no regrets other than not being able to spend enough time with everyone. It sounds sort of cliché but there are some things that matter and some that don’t. Myself, and I suspect many others, have lost sight of that fact.

So as you enter the holiday season, I encourage you to try to avoid the drama that can so easily unfold. Without trying to be morbid or fatalistic, treat each person, family member or friend, as a blessing. You don’t know what next year will bring. I implore you to be thankful for the things that are important and place everything else on a shelf, at least for the next few weeks.


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