Thanksgiving is over, but I’m still thinking about gratitude. Two things happened, shortly after the holiday, that have me pondering what gratitude is, and how it might sustain us.
I am not one for truisms and affirmations. Give me Leonard Cohen’s “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” and I will remind you that bright lights bring me migraines. Assure me, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” and I will show you a foot I broke fourteen months ago that cost me my job and my mobility. Urge me to “Count your blessings” and I’ll ask you to pipe down while I rummage through my worry list once more.
People who embrace gratitude seem to me, I’m afraid, like simpletons. “Hey, you ran over my dog, but thanks, I appreciate that you took him to the vet!” Or even, “Hey, you killed my dog, but thanks, now I realize how much I loved that mutt!” I know, I know – I’m missing something here.
The idea of gratitude landed in my lap the day after Turkey Day, outside a restaurant my husband and I were looking forward to trying. Pulling into the parking lot, we saw there were no handicap spaces, but I had my knee-roller. Bob got it out, I hopped on, and then we saw the step. The step of doom. You can’t ride a roller up a step, and I wasn’t about to get down on all fours and crawl. As Bob took my left arm in a Hail Mary attempt to levitate me up the curb, I shrugged him off in frustration. No seafood dinner for me.
Then we heard someone calling, “No, no, wait!” Before I could turn to look, a man was at my right side, and the two of them lifted me easily up the step. We went our separate ways, my thanks to the kind stranger ringing in the cold air.
That was nice, and I was grateful to him. But later, it came to me. Maybe I should be grateful for the step. Not for the broken foot – I won’t go that far – but to the step, which caused the man to notice our dilemma, and to just walk right up and help us. Without the small crisis, I would not have been enfolded in that stranger’s kind embrace.
That was a small thing. The other thing was not. It came in the form of a Facebook post, put there two days after Thanksgiving by my daughter, Allison. She can be just as sarcastic as me, and I have always loved her for that. This day, though, she was deeply thoughtful, pondering her gratitude for a life that has not been easy.
True to form, she first acknowledged that everyone was “re-examining our lives and our country, fluctuating between the very human desire to make peace, and the other very human desire to watch it all burn.” That’s my girl. Then she blew me away.
“So,” she continued, “I’m thankful for my mom. My mother, the strongest person I know. All my stubbornness, my intelligence, my sense of humor, my inability to take fools lightly, my latent empathy – all from her. She has endured so much – so much more than I could have imagined when I was a child. Despite everything, she made sure we had all we needed. Not just a roof over our heads and meals every night, but bedtime stories, homework help, and pretend grocery stores and libraries (real libraries, too) and tacos on Sunday after church. And so much more that I’m still coming to realize, decades later. While her marriage and divorce raged on, she gave me the most important thing I needed: safety. Acceptance. I was a deeply troubled kid in my own way, and I know I gave her so much worry. My mother’s unconditional love and strength kept me going.”
She then wrote about being grateful for her little brother. “My biggest pride was in protecting you – at least I hope I was – from the brunt of the storm. I’m thankful and insanely proud of the person you’ve grown to be.” And much more, but you get the idea.
She continued, “I’m grateful for my stepdad, Bob.” She said she’d worried I would never find love again, but there he was. “Even though Mom and I come with interesting baggage, you’ve become the safe port in the storm.”
Then her grandparents, my own mom and dad. “Your home was a haven of safety and love,” she wrote, “for all three of us. It took a while for me to figure out why you were so different from my other grandparents,” she said, stopping my heart for a moment. Yes.
Finally, stubbornly, she is thankful for her dad. She remembers him for teaching her about cars, and being there when she was going through a really tough time in college. Until I read that, I had no idea about those phone calls. That, I told her, was a gift to me. It made me grateful for him, too, despite the hell he put us through. “I remember you protecting me from your parents,” she wrote. “I inherited your sense of humor, your love of being alone in nature, the ‘I can fix it!’ approach and your stubbornness, too.”
Notice: she’s not saying she’s glad her childhood was ringed with heartache and danger. What she is doing is looking around and noticing what was good. Like my own gratitude, hers is tempered with regret. It’s a thankfulness that prevails despite all the fallout. It’s a gratefulness that still holds all of us accountable. And it’s a start on that list of blessings, the hard-won thanksgiving that really counts.