Wednesday, November 21, 2018


A few years ago another writer and I spent some time thinking about rituals in the sense of rather mysterious, even sinister, ways of breaking out of the norm, the given, the expected.  But just before Thanksgiving I'm thinking about the ritual aspect of something so familiar that it has lost meaning.  My family always gathered, extended to some degree, and we generally did have turkey.  It was a bit of an ordeal to roast the turkey.  We also had the prescribed green beans with canned fried onions and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow.  There was generally pumpkin pie with whipped cream.  This was fancied up country food. as people who were the first generation off the farm knew it.

My mother had been complaining that the kitchen stove was failing and saying she needed a new one.  It was so old that it had legs and the oven was up beside the burners.  My father made excuses.  The day to roast the turkey came.  The door of the oven fell off.

At the time it seemed a mixture of rage and hilarity.  I didn't "get" the underlying forces: my father's failure to provide, my father's family being the ones coming for the feast, my father's ability to repel all criticism from his birth family because he was the oldest male, my mother's on-going struggle to raise three kids alone (my father's job was traveling), making a little extra by bookkeeping, activity with the PTA and the local Presbyterian church, and finally going back to college so she could put me through college.  (It was a fancy school but I had a scholarship.)  None of this ever registered with my father because gender assignment was embedded in him.

Both my parents' life experience was crossing the line between rural and urban, between working class and middle class -- at the bottom.  There were two exceptions: the uncle who flew planes for TWA and the Hatfields, who stayed on their land, married my mother's sisters, and were bigshots in a local way, not least because they were prosperous.  Perhaps my experience in "feeling" the transition is useful to people making the jump now, even if most of those folks are people of color, which adds another layer.

I made a second jump, again through education but this time at a high prestige university aimed at professions.  As clergy I was serving people much higher on the socioeconomic ladder than I was, which was not always comfortable and which most people are uncomfortable talking about because we are supposed to be class-less.  A little while with television or computer ads and our imagery is that of the ten per cent at the top of the middle class, so it's not in the "middle" at all.  And yet highly educated people have often abandoned prosperity in service to their work.

Thanksgiving is a ceremony once religious when in the colonies it was based on fasting, as though going hungry were a sign of virtue.  At some point the penitence flipped to pride in plenty.  That must have taken hold at about the same time that the middle class formed, the first cities appeared, the farmers found productive places that could feed everyone.  The sentimental but bogus story of the "Indians" coming with food to gift the colonists must have been a bit of lingering guilt over that transition.  It was a mercantile gift event.

There are at least three other hidden meanings.  One is the persistent need to portray ourselves in contact with Nature and the autochthonous sources of our human existence, which are believed to be dependable and nourishing.  The "Indians" are then supposed to represent Nature, free from greed and suspicion, innocent but childlike.

Another is the idea that a conquered people are finally grateful to have the previous barbarities wiped away so that they are properly civilized and bring their new affinity to join the prevailing culture.  Winner take all -- all is forgiven. As long as we are the the same -- sort of.

From the "Indian" side, it was smart to obligate the belligerent colonizers by giving them food, which was plentiful from their "Indian" point of view.  It was a message to the colonizers that they were weak and had better not cut off their access to people who knew what they were doing.  

Thanksgiving in my family was no less a complex ceremony.  It was continuity with the rural past when eating a big bird meant killing it first, an act common on Sunday when the main meal was chicken.  A dependable stove was a rural, verging on middle class, sort of appliance.  Arranging a meal was a bit of an art form, depending upon presentation, and when the guests were in-laws, it became symbolic of love and care.  

My mother's rage was more than impatience that my father didn't provide.  It was powerful enough that he meekly accepted the obligation to sit with a book, holding the oven door shut while the turkey roasted.  It's possible he broke one of his rules by buying a new stove on credit, a capitalist invention that his half-baked progressiveness forbade.  Growing up in Manitoba in high school years, he always had a Communist tilt, which was why he worked for a cooperative and railed against corporations, who owned all the high-pay jobs.

The emotion was covered by joking and clowning, which is often a strategy for POC, rendering a real danger and embarrassment into harmlessness.  It's the black slave strategy, parallel to the South American magic realism.  To accuse Trump of using his ridiculous inventions (raking the forest) in a parallel way is a bit of a stretch, but there is no way he shows his low-class origins more vividly than when he does this, pretending that it's not because he doesn't know any better.

Later in life, when my mother was fading and I was toughing it out as a clerical specialist for the City of Portland, a low middle-class job, Thanksgiving became a sore point.  The extended family had dwindled to only a few.  My mother had never really appreciated turkey, so the centerpiece protein was likely to be salmon -- which she explained was a silver salmon, carefully picked out with her knowing eye -- or maybe ham.  There was a place that sold pre-sliced ham and included the bone for soup.  Very clever.  

The counterpoint to the plenty of a ceremonial feast was always the ghost of poverty, starvation to the point of death.  Even at a feast the careful eye was planning for a lean winter and the need not to eat the seed corn in the spring if planting were late.  Even among Plains tribes like Blackfeet, there were times when adults gave up eating so that the children could be fed.  My mother said when she was a girl living in a prune orchard, there were times when the only food was bread, milk and applesauce.  Eggs in the proper season, but not eating the laying hens and not eating chicks meant to be raised to renew the flock.  This is part of the way nature works, but it's not always present in the culture, even at the harvest ceremonials.

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