Fifty Novembers ago, in the hushed, complacent serenity of the suburbs east of Manhattan, a family barely one generation removed from fresh-off-the-boat shanty dwellings gathered among its lace curtains, and shared dreams of a cut-glass future.
The woman of the house, who imagined herself to be first among equals in her gaggle of siblings and cousins, had made one of her periodic efforts to set an impressive table. There were so many guests that the dining room table, even when extended by extra leaves brought down from the attic, was barely large enough to accommodate all the adults, and the children ate at a separate table in the kitchen, much to their delight.
Before dessert, the woman’s sister tried to help out by quietly starting the dishes. She kept shushing all the kids in the kitchen, knowing that the hostess wouldn’t stand for her sibling cleaning up, and hoping to have it done before she was found out. One of the children started lilting, in a singsong voice, “Aunt Kathleen, you need to look at what my mom is doing,” at which point his own mother turned around and scorched, “you little brat! Telling on your own flesh and blood!” And the boy’s sister began shaking her head and rolling her eyes, lecturing her mother that, “he does this all the time, and you let him get away with it, which is why he’ll never stop.”
In the dining room, the man of the house had just about fallen asleep over his second glass of scotch, but was awakened by this disturbance of the peace and asked his brother-in-law, seated beside him, what the rumpus was. The latter, afflicted with a judicial temperament, replied evenly, “well, there are two sides to every story, of course…” The boy then tried to change the subject by picking up the top of a water pitcher his mother had just washed and observing that the mesh designed to keep ice cubes from slipping through the spout was in the form of a peace symbol. And his mother said, “don’t be ridiculous, that’s just the shape they happened to use” and his sister said, “I don’t think there’s anything ridiculous about it, they probably did that deliberately.”
The mention of peace steered the conversation among the adults toward politics. One of the children heard his father say, “he had some damned nerve,” and his mother argue, “he had every right, after what that family has been through.” And his aunt, who couldn’t resist raising funds for crusades that verged on redemptive, said, “what a lovely man he was,” and then grew uncharacteristically quiet. At the time, all of this meant nothing to the boy, but with a lifetime of hindsight he would infer that they were talking about one of their own tribe, whom the aunt had known. And how he been branded a carpetbagger, an opportunist. But how, also, he had raised hopes of restoration and deliverance. And then suddenly, was gone, as the mother sobbed, watching his funeral on television.
“It’s always the way with saviors,” the father said at Thanksgiving dinner, a few months after this loss. “Too good for this world,” the mother sighed. “This is what comes of trying immanentize the eschaton,” the learned brother-in-law reflected.
Growing bitter with the intake of wine, one of the women asked, “what are we giving thanks for?” The equable brother-in-law answered, “it was a tragedy, but it doesn’t mean all hope is gone.” Another of the extended family countered, “there comes a point when you need something more than hope to be thankful for.” At this, the father replied, “hope is not what you give thanks for. Hope is how you give thanks. Hope is what you get back, in exchange for your appreciation. And if you let that slip away, you’re finished.”
As the adults waded more deeply into politics and philosophy, wine and scotch, the kids gathered upstairs, with the growing sense that they need not fear any supervision or interference, regardless of how they chose to amuse themselves, short of burning down the house. Seizing the opportunity, they began pulling mattresses off the beds and using them as toboggans to bobsled down the stairs. Whenever an adult passed the bottom of the stairs, saw a knot of hysterical children tangled up in bedding, and asked what they were doing, the son offered helpfully to get him or her another drink. (Although barely old enough to ride a bicycle without training wheels, he had learned that, at least during family gatherings, this was the surest way to deflect hostile scrutiny and bank some good will.)
But this revelry subsided as the hour grew late, and the adults sobered up almost enough to drive home. Before the evening ended, however, the hostess insisted that everyone gather at the table for photographs. At the center of the lace napery were Waterford candlesticks, of which she was unreasonably proud. Decades later, one of the children in those pictures would discover the faded prints in a tattered box, and marvel at the countenances they portrayed, then infinitely wise and strong, now vanished. And the faces of his own generation, so young and rife with possibility, now weathered and wasted.
Oddly, though, his eyes would be drawn mostly to those candles, because some defect in the camera or trick of the light had exposed onto the film columns of luminous tracery, tapering sinuously upward from each small flame. The effect evoked nothing so much as the presence of ghosts. And looking at the pictures, he would ask himself, “who could have known?”
Editor’s Note: On this holiday, the Broadsheet wishes for each of its readers a renewed awareness of how much there is to appreciate, a replenished capacity to give thanks, and a deepened reservoir of hope.
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