More Than Just Turkey – An American Expat Explains Thanksgiving

Turkey & The Trimmings

Since moving to England, I’ve had to explain a few American holidays with Thanksgiving being one. There seems to be a lot of confusion here about why we celebrate it and what it is exactly.

Most people know about the turkey, but not much more than that.  A young woman asked me the other day if it’s like Christmas for Americans only without the gifts.

Suppressing a laugh, I said there were no presents at Thanksgiving and that like others who celebrate Christmas, we save our gifts for the tree, not the turkey.

I told her about the early settlers and how fortunate the Pilgrims were to be fed by the Native Americans when there wasn’t enough food to go around.

I talked about how it’s a celebration of family by most and a gathering of people who sit down to tables loaded with memories created from family recipes passed down through generations.

I forgot to mention how it’s football and alcohol and a chance to over-indulge in more than just food for some folks.

I didn’t say much about the thanks in Thanksgiving or how we talk about gratitude and blessings, generally sharing some of what we’re grateful for before the first fork is lifted.

I didn’t say how it feels to be so far from my other home on days like these or how we really do exchange gifts in a way although not the kind that can be purchased from a favorite store.

I should have talked about the gifts of memory that are mixed in with the pie and family favorites, and the stories of loved ones long gone who come alive for a moment when we remember them, especially when we join hands with those sitting next to us, bow our heads and give thanks.

Most Americans, with me included, tend to make a big to-do about the turkey and the trimmings, but in the end I think we just want a little more time with those we love and whether it’s in person, or in memory, Thanksgiving forces us to focus on what really matters.

Happy Thanksgiving to friends and family who celebrate this day.

If you have a gift of memory you’d like to share, I’d love to read about it. Please leave a link if you have one on your blog today or tell us a family favorite that comes up each year. 

Like It Was Yesterday – Sweet Contentment

I scanned this photograph along with some others during my visit home. It was taken almost twenty years ago on a day I remember so well that my heart still aches a bit with the memory of it. It was a peaceful moment where no one said, ‘Smile or Say Cheese,’ but instead allowed the easy comfort of our mother-daughter connection to share itself naturally despite the busyness of a children’s birthday party at McDonald’s.

Miranda looks into the camera with what I remember as an amazing sense of confidence at an age when the biggest challenges to her changing heart’s desire were the parental insecurities of a mom and dad who were frequently conflicted on how to do everything just right.

As for me, I remember the delight and contentment I felt sitting there feeling her little arm against the back of my neck with her hand resting on my shoulder. Most days I can’t remember what I did the day before, but moments like these are so vivid that I feel sure this will be what I’ll remember in the last minutes of my life. Twenty years or yesterday … it is still a sweet memory of contentment.

Happy New Year – 10 Years Ago Today

Ten years ago today people were worried about what might happen as the clocks rolled over into 2000. I had bigger fears than Y2K back then, but even so I tried to focus on the moments and the experiences of my daily life placing more value on creating a portfolio of memories than banking it all for a mega big retirement plan. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done the traditional things as well, investing in property and my 401K, but by far the best rewards in my later years will be the experiences I’ve shared with the people I love.

This was Paris in 2000, with us standing under a damp winter sky in front of the Eiffel Tower where I took my daughter Miranda in hopes of adding to her portfolio of special moments and memories.

Here’s to creating new memories in 2010 and building a retirement fund of a lasting kind … our connections to each other and the fearless pursuit of life worth living.

Things That Make Your Heart Feel Tender

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We all know that things don’t matter as much as people, but sometimes when the people you love are far away there are some things you just don’t want to be without. Yesterday, after 78 days and trip that began back in America, some of my special things finally arrived from Georgia. It was a bit surreal seeing the things I had pared down to as the most essential from my American life taken off a truck in the tiny village in England I now call home.

I had to open some boxes right away to ensure there was no damage and my art pieces were the first ones I tore into. I was opening at a good pace with an excitement similar to a child on Christmas morning when the watercolor piece above stopped my excited frenzy of paper tearing with an audible ooooooh… followed by a loud ,”John, come look at this one….”

This sweet little watercolor is a tender connection to my daughter’s childhood and to her every time I see it. She brought it home one day very early in her school career somewhat rumpled as large project can be when carried by small hands. I loved it from the beginning and after claiming a space on the side of the refrigerator reserved for special things, I eventually took it down and rolled it up intending to have it framed. It took about five years before I could make up my mind how I wanted to frame it which occurred right about the time my daughter would have preferred that her middle school age friends not see the art work of her early years. She called this little bunny, “Cerit Body” or “Carrot Body”  as she told me when I mispronounced it the first time based on her written words at the top of the painting and if you look closely at the bottom, you can just make out the young artist’s signature too.

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I felt a bit tearful seeing this little watercolor painting and held it so closely that John picked up the camera to capture my emotional moment. I am so glad to have it with me and I’m already thinking about the best place to hang it when the dust settles around here.

Some things will have to stay boxed until my new space is finished and since our master bedroom is going through a renovation and extension too with the addition on an en-suite bath, nothing can be unpacked for that room yet either. Yesterday afternoon, John and I moved boxes of clothes and linens & towels up to the attic while creating a temporary holding space in the living room corner for the 9 boxes of books I shipped over along with a section for art and other collectables. The kitchen is overflowing with dishes and china, along with bowls and cooking things my grandmother once used on a regular basis. The wooden bread bowl carved by my great grandfather quickly replaced the basket that John kept fruit in and will have a place on the table once it’s cleared of all the pieces I placed there while unpacking yesterday.

Last night when all the lights were out and I was heading for bed, I followed my nightly routine of checking all the doors to be sure the house was locked up tight for the night. This habit is one I inherited from my father who always made this a part of his bedtime ritual. He called it shutting down the house. That I do it now reminds me of my father on a more frequent and personal level than seeing his photograph on my shelf…proving that sometimes a memory or tradition can be as valuable in some ways as our possessions. Last night however, as I lingered at the kitchen door and looked back into the messy room, I was more than happy and content to see the physical examples of my family and my story waiting to find a place in this new home.

June 6, 1944 – Surviving To Die Another Day

 

HUGH LEE STEPHENS

HUGH LEE STEPHENS

While June 6, 1944 is a day that many will gather to remember the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion and the wartime sacrifice of human life, in my family there is another date that we remember someone lost to us on French soil in 1944. Like many other families it’s more personal than just another breaking news story where they bring out the oldest surviving vets and listen as they recount the horrors of that horrible time.

Stories are powerful, they shape opinion and leave a lasting impression on how we view the world around us. I grew up hearing stories about my great uncle, Hugh Lee Stephens. He was one of only two children born to my father’s maternal grandparents in a time when families were usually much larger, when more children in families like ours meant more hands to work the farm and fields. On the day my family learned of Uncle Hugh’s death, his mother, my great-grandmother, had what I believe was first of several heart attacks she would have throughout her life. She was 53. She forever mourned her dead son acting in some ways as if her life ended with his. By the time I was born she almost seemed like a frail reflection of the sturdy woman I saw in family photographs before 1944.

My father was only a few days away from his 10th birthday when he heard the news and spoke often of how he’d looked up to his uncle who at 18 years his senior, was in many ways like a second father to him. My grandmother Clara Mae, his only sibling, told the kind of stories one might expect from a someone still clinging to the unfinished business of sibling rivalry…choosing to hold onto old hurts instead of feeling the pain and finality that comes with death. Each one had a different story…each one the truth for them. As for his father, my great-grandfather, I cannot ever remember him sharing any stories of his lost son… almost as if it was too much to remember what must have been to painful for him to recall.

Hugh Lee, as he was referred to by his mother and father also left behind a wife who loved him. When he died at 27, he was just a simple Georgia boy in a foreign country. He found himself in a country he never imagined he’d be growing up as he did on a rural farm in the south. A place across the ocean where he’d struggle to find his footing and fall dying as he did beside his fellow soldiers, the sons and fathers and husbands we still remember 65 years later.

Because I had served as a soldier in the U.S. Army, when it came time to pass Uncle Hugh’s flag to the next generation for safe keeping my father offered it to me, the eldest of his three daughters. I took this photograph in Georgia just before I passed it on to my daughter Miranda who while only 21, was appreciative and eager to accept it into her care. While packing up the small amount of things that I value most to send over to England, I made the decision to leave behind the flag that draped the casket at his military funeral not because I did not value its meaning or because there was no room, but because I believed my great uncle Hugh’s American flag should stay in the country he called home.

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The reflection of the empty chairs in this photograph of his flag reminds me of the family and life experiences he never got to have. Leaving no children of his own, his story exists now only in a few genealogy notes, this flag and the memories we share.  I honor his service and sacrifice in the best way I know how by sharing his story with a group larger than the boundaries of our little family and hope that he like so many others who gave their lives on the battlefield , will never be forgotten.

Resurrection Sunday – Ghosts

Resurrection: Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin resurrēctiō, resurrēctiōn-, from Latin resurrēctus, past participle of resurgere, to rise again. 

or this

The act of bringing back to practice, notice, or use; revival

I’ve been thinking a bit about my first blog site where I left a few things behind that were important to me. Intimate and personal, they just sit there now waiting for someone to stumble across them. After reading today’s post by Sarah-ji over at Shutter Sisters I thought a good bit about one sentence she wrote and what it meant to me…it’s a request really and one that inspired me to look back through my memories and resurrect some for another look.

Here Sarah-ji asks, ” Will you share with us today your images of the weathered, beat-up and forgotten that nevertheless convey to you a hope and beauty that’s raw and real? ” I appreciate the inspiration provided by her question today and the gifts for me in remembering what remains raw and real. What about you out there…how about a Resurrection Sunday of your own. Perhaps you can provide a link today to what is “raw and real”, ” hope and beauty ” as Sarah-ji asks or something else. I’m interested in what you have to share today…..

Ghosts

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“Let it go” she said. Standing in the remains of the church on the edge of the rocky coast, I could almost hear her voice whispering to me, “forgive yourself and let it go.”

Looking around the dirty room thick with years of dust, I wondered about the last time someone had sat on the rough pew waiting for the minister to get to the point. Simple in their design, and looking as uncomfortable as the wind felt blowing in through the broken glass, I pulled my coat tighter and considered the history of the tiny church. The room was poorly lit, the shadows in the corners near the old pulpit were scary in the dark space that John seemed to disappear into and out of sight. Nervous and not sure why, I stepped closer to the low light drifting in through the only window not boarded up.

Before when we were still outside, John had pulled on a door that was wedged shut to keep people out while had I hung back thinking about how what we were doing was less adventure and more intrusion. This ruin of a church, isolated and abandoned on the Isle of Skye should have drawn me in rather than triggering my fight or flight response, but as he slipped in past the half open door, I found myself tight behind him not wanting to be left alone, even outside.

Once inside I came part way down the aisle and considered my feet were walking where hopeful brides had walked, one hand lightly resting on their father’s arm anxious to take the final steps that would take them from their parents home into one of their own making. A home and life they would struggle to build with the man smiling and nervous waiting at the front of the church.

Flashing quickly forward I imagined the hardships of life here years ago when this church might have been alive with activity and the energy of the fishing community.

Would the women who married and later baptized their children here also have gathered to mourn and bury their hope along with the men they loved in this little church. What dreams had been lost to the things they could not control. What words had they left unsaid and what things once done could never be forgotten.

I knew then why I didn’t want to go into this church. This building had once been light and bright with possibilities and warmth. It had been a gathering place for worship and reflection, for celebration and for sorrow. Standing in the darkness, all I could feel was a sense of loss and the echo of those who had called this place a sanctuary.

“Let it go” she said, “move on with your life and live well while you can.”

Acts of contrition, reconciliation, absolution, sometimes all you can do has to to be enough….let it go.

 

(Posted originally on August 6, 2008 at http://giftsofthejourney.com)