Thanksgiving takes a memory and a gift. A memory without a gift won’t do it, nor will a gift without a memory. This obviously involves two persons: one with a memory, the other with a gift. A person without a gift of some type or other doesn’t generate thanks, nor will a person without a memory. But gifts come in various disguises, needing to be recognized, and memories are experienced in different ways.
On Thanksgiving Day we try to recall the gifts we have received along the way. Many of these are family centered, as we remember the parent or the child or another relative, who has been part of our lives along the way, some quite significantly so, enriching us. Of such persons we say that we will never forget them. Often it’s not a tangible gift they have bestowed on us, but rather something that is intangible, such as the interest they may have taken in us throughout the years of our life, asking how we’re doing, what we have been up to, or our achievements over the year. This kind of gift has a personal touch to it, rather than a label noting that it came from Macy’s. But it triggers an automatic recollection, dispensing with the struggle to recall what, if any, tangible gift this person may have given me since last we met. Such a person doesn’t have to be remembered for what he or she has done for us, other than to be who they are: a breath of fresh air blowing through our life, like a welcome breeze coming through an open window and billowing the curtains.
But, of course, these kinds of incidents suppose a memory on the part of the other person, nursing a deeply felt spirit of gratitude to the “gift” giver, for being who he or she is in our life. But, unfortunately, at times some of our mental circuits are overloaded, and we struggle to identify such a person within our circle of “gift-givers”. We suffer memory-overload, and our circuit receptors fail us at time of need. Even though our reception of the person may be warm, even heart-felt, coupled with a firm handshake, our eyes may betray us, as the other person reads our facial features and sees that we are not connecting. It’s a memory breakdown. This can happen to young people suffering from over load. On such occasions, thanksgiving becomes an ordeal because it lacks genuine warmth and personal recognition, and the other instantly perceives it.
Indeed, one of the difficult periods in an otherwise close family network is when one of the elders gradually disconnects with the memories housing better times. Older members succumbing more and more to a faltering memory inflict pain on other family members, as their memories falter, and their eyes betray that look of vacancy and non-recognition that is like a stab in the heart. The power of engagement is seeping away, and a shallowness now inhabits the look in the eye and the faltering word on the lips.
So Thanksgiving recalls that we need both gift and memory. That is certainly the heart of the Thanksgiving Day celebration this country maintains every fourth Thursday of the month of November. We trace this back to the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony who in 1621 celebrated their first harvest. Devout Christians themselves, they appreciated the gift of this New World, and we follow after them, hopefully also mindful of this gift. Indeed, one of the less celebrated, but nonetheless deeply imbedded practices among us, is the prayer of thanksgiving following the main meal of each day, concluding the grace that we bestowed on the meal before sitting down at table. It is fitting that we make special use of the word “grace” at mealtime, for it embodies, perhaps more than any other single word, what gratitude is all about. For the grateful person is a graceful person whose style of presence among us is marked by peace, calmness and self-possession. This is the natural outcome of one who appreciates the gifts imbedded in them and never forgotten, because they have become part of one’s persona: the graceful person. We think of Mary in these terms as we say a favorite prayer: “Hail, Mary, full of grace…”
And our central prayer (the mass) is more appropriately called “the eucharist”, that is, thanksgiving and gratitude to God for all of His gifts bestowed on us. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we do so full of gratitude at the convergence we note between this beloved holiday, and central features of our Catholic faith.