Every cook recalls her first turkey.
Mine was fresh, not frozen - about 14 pounds with an ample breast and wings with remnants of feathers stuck to the skin.
My memories of that Thanksgiving drift through my mind like slides fading in and out: Football on the driveway; the dog moseying around the kitchen, seeking out the succulent source of the wafting aroma; the table set with rarely-used china and crystal.
It was a perfect holiday - a quintessentially American Thanksgiving - except that unlike on TV commercials, my turkey refused to cook.
After roughly seven hours in the oven, during which time the mashed potatoes turned to warmed-over wallpaper paste, I admitted defeat, hacked the bird into medieval-sized servings, and zapped the whole thing in the microwave.
In the end, though the effort was strenuous and not just a little stressful, I learned a crucial lesson about Thanksgiving: It's the gravy and the company that matter most.
Thanksgiving holds a special place in the hearts of all Americans. When, in 1789, George Washington signed the first "General Thanksgiving" proclamation, he designated the day "to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God."
For the past two years, our nation's scorched economy and long-term joblessness have caused us to reassess what it means to be blessed.
That's because nothing realigns America's priorities like hardship.
Rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, we American's don't just count our blessings by looking for the proverbial silver lining inside a passing cloud of events. We're just as likely to "give thanks in all circumstances," understanding that God can use every situation for our benefit and his glory.
Perhaps this is part of our national ethos that Theodore Roosevelt described in his classic speech, "The Strenuous Life."
"I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease," Roosevelt said, "but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph."
Roosevelt's inspiring words are part of a new collection of speeches and documents released this week called "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own" edited by Jackie Gingrich Cushman (Regnery Publishing. Full disclosure: I'm also a Regnery author).
"I wrote this book because I believe America is exceptional-that's a controversial statement. These great national stories remind us of the foundation of our country and how our national character has been forged," Cushman said.
"The Essential American" will help us reinvigorate that national character. Through documents such as the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, to important speeches such as Lincoln's first and second Inaugural addresses, McArthur's Sylvanus Thayer Award Acceptance Address ("Duty, Honor, Country"), and Reagan's Brandenburg Gate remarks, Cushman arms us with the basic building blocks of American citizenship and fans the flame of our national spirit.
There is such as thing as an American character. Just as we have forged quintessentially American traditions like Thanksgiving, we can claim for ourselves the essential American qualities that have defined us for generations.
Cushman's collection challenges us to bolster those traits by knowing and appreciating our history. Perhaps the best place to start is with Teddy's vision of Americans:
"In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to rest triumph from toil and risk.As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation."
Bully! And Happy Thanksgiving!
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