American University, Away From Home, Beverly, Depression, Family, Financial Woes, Food, Friends, Grinding Poverty, hunger, Kindness of Strangers, Loneliness, Malnourishment, Melissa, Pitt, Ron Slater, Thanksgiving
Yet another Thanksgiving has come and gone. The holiday is problematic for so many reasons, between the erasure, cultural exploitation, and dehumanizing mythology of indigenous Americans and the climate-change-defying national pig-out that begins every late-November Thursday, and continues for weeks afterward, year after year. But the fact that the days off around Thanksgiving gives us worker bees time to spend with family, friends, and those we seriously like and love can’t be ignored.
Sure. At least for those of us who have such people in our lives with whom to share our time off from work, school, and life’s constant treadmill. My American University students reminded me of the allegedly normal ritual of returning home to eat and spend time with family, et al., this past week. Half of them contacted me to let me know they weren’t going to attend the two classes immediately before Thanksgiving, even after learning I wasn’t granting them an excused absence for the holiday week. All so that they could have a few extra days away from the stresses of higher education and the classroom. I envied them, just an iota, if only because they presumably had good reason to spend time with their families and loved ones. I also figured that not everyone in my class was going home to a welcoming environment, or really, going home at all.
That last one was certainly the case for me during my student days. Growing up the way we grew up, in Mount Vernon, at 616, a good Thanksgiving was one where we had a regular meal to eat. Even before the Hebrew-Israelite years of 1981-84, our Thanksgivings weren’t seven-course eat-a-thons. We were lucky if my Uncle Sam came over to eat with us (which after 1978, was pretty rare), and we didn’t spend time around my Mom’s friends once we dived into being Black Jews and fell into grinding welfare poverty.
After I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in August 1987, I only came home to Mount Vernon and 616 one time for Thanksgiving, three months later. My Mom made the biggest Thanksgiving meal I’d seen her make since 1975. I remember mostly the mashed potatoes and gravy. But it wasn’t a family affair, not really. I was home mostly because I had grown used to the well-worn grooves of poverty, abuse, and adult-level responsibilities that had been my life since the fall of 1982. The food, while the first home-cooked meal I’d eaten in three months, was an escape from my normal attempts at escape.
Twelve months later, after six weeks of depression, getting over my Phyllis obsession, a semester of graduate school-like concentration, a summer of unemployment, a week of homelessness, and three months of financial woes and malnourishment, Thanksgiving 1988 had arrived. Between Ron Slater, Beverly, and finally having enough money to not worry about eating or bills for the first time in almost a year, it felt weird, only having gratitude as my companion for a few years.
But life got even weirder for me, as my friend Melissa had invited me to her father’s house for Thanksgiving. This was not a date of any kind, certainly not from my perspective. I think that Melissa sensed how rough my year had been, knew that I wasn’t going home to New York to see family, and did the Christian thing of looking after one’s neighbors. This even though things weren’t exactly great for her and her father at the time. Melissa’s father was an ailing contractor in his early sixties. I really don’t remember much about that Thanksgiving in terms of the food. I think there may have been dinner rolls or candied yams. What I do remember is the two-and-a-half hours I talked with Melissa and her father, about politics, the “Stillers,” Christianity, and Pitt. It was the most thankful holiday I’d ever experienced, and my first Thanksgiving seeing what Thanksgiving was like for family members who enjoyed each other’s company.
It was the first of seven straight Thanksgivings either spent with friends like Melissa, Howard, Kenny, the Gants and their families, or by myself. The “by myself” Thanksgiving was in 1990. It was a cold and rainy day, where I did nothing but watch football, made myself two double cheeseburgers, and found a nearly usable director’s chair outside a vintage furniture gallery in East Liberty. Even then, folks looked out for me. The next day, two of my older Swahili classmates swung by my apartment to bring me Thanksgiving leftovers. They brought me cornbread, dinner rolls, ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and stuffing, greens, and candied yams with marshmallows. I had tried to say no, but neither of the women would let me. It was really hard for me not to cry while being thankful for such generosity.
It seems like it’s been a lifetime since those naive and cynical days, where I didn’t trust anyone in my life. The bout with homelessness and the financial straits that followed changed my life in ways that I notice even today. Even with the years of working long hours and fighting for my career as a writer and an educator, I realize that I wouldn’t be here doing any of what I’m able to do today without the kindness of strangers and friends, the ability to weigh, sift, and analyze myself and my past or the sense that God had a purpose for me, a reason for living and being. Even after 30 years, I have this and so much else to be thankful for.