Thanksgiving is a holiday stirring mixed emotions. We rejoice in friends and family, mourn the memory of those no longer at the table. We endure the tiresome bores at the table because they qualify as family. Not all the turkeys at table are full of egg-bread stuffing.
We bless the new babes, admire the growth of the tweens and indulge the adolescents who think they shock us with their discovery that adults belong to an inferior breed. We welcome college friends whose families live far away and invite those in our community without kith and kin to share a meal.
We pray for our fighting men and women in a faraway alien place who put their lives at risk to protect our security while giving others a chance to enjoy the liberty of free men. We praise all who contribute to our bounty through physical labor and the hard work of the heart, mind and spirit.
Thanksgiving is a potpourri of traditions mixing memory and desire, great appetites for food and conversation, reflection and indigestion. More than any other holiday, it embraces Proustian images of the remembrance of things past. The aroma of a turkey baking envelops not only the house, but the soul as well.
Most of us know the origin of the holiday, when the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock celebrated their first year's harvest with Indian friends, giving thanks for the abundance of the new land. But few of us know many of the details of our forefathers' lives or the different traditions that merged to make it a national holiday of spiritual joy and secular satisfaction.
Our focus is on food, family and friends and the thanks that accompany giving; few of us spend much time thinking about the historical antecedents of the holiday.
It might be interesting to ask those at the table if anyone knows the name of a single passenger on the Mayflower. Four presidents are linked to a single family tree. Both Roosevelts and Bush father and son are descended from John Howland, a Pilgrim who fell off the Mayflower in a storm and was saved by a sailor's rope. Five other presidents trace their ancestry to the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims: John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield.
Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, half were Pilgrims who later came to be known as the Saints and the other half were seekers of fortune in the New World, who came to be called Strangers. The Mayflower Compact, a blueprint for autonomous government, prevented mutiny on the high seas between the two groups and later became a reference point for the Founding Fathers as they wrote the Constitution.