[This piece is an old favorite. It first appeared at The Palace of Reason on November 27, 2003. It expresses the meaning I find in the Thanksgiving celebration better than anything I’ve written since then. Twenty years later, it still rings true for me. Make of it what you will. — FWP]
Thanksgiving Day, alternately known here at the Fortress of Crankitude as the Feast of St. Gluttony, has finally arrived. Across America, three- and four-person families will open their doors to company, prepare quantities of food sufficient to provision the USS Theodore Roosevelt for a three month deployment, eat about five percent of it, and spend the remainder of the day bellyaching, in several senses of the word.
- There will be much jockeying for position at the dinner table, as if proximity to the string beans and fried onions, the pearl onions in cream, or the sweet potato casserole carried a proportional obligation to eat them.
- There will be much cranberry sauce, most of it from Ocean Spray Corporation and bearing the trademark raised double rings fore and aft. The juveniles in the company will fight over who gets those.
- There will be many ejaculations of “I’m stuffed fuller than that turkey” and “I couldn’t eat another bite.”
- There will be much washing-up.
- There will be extensive packaging of leftovers and cries of frustration over the dimensions of the refrigerator. These will be accompanied by sincere exhortations to the guests to “take a little home for later, we don’t need it all. Really!”
- There will be football, which the menfolk will use to escape the washing-up and packaging of leftovers.
- There will be visits from relatives whose tenuous connection to the host family is all but lost in the mists of time.
- There will be more football, which, together with the feeling of having swallowed a tire, will dampen the traditional post-prandial displays of hostility between the aforementioned tenuously connected relatives.
- There will be the blessed moment when all the guests go home and the hosts can cease to be hosts, a role at which most of us are terrible anyway.
- Interspersed with all that, there will be some pro forma expressions of gratitude for this or that, whose cliche fraction will average about 83.33%, because most of us are no better at appreciating our blessings than we are at being hosts. Still, it’s important to make the effort, at least once a year.
Thanksgiving Day is bittersweet for many, because they lack some of the above ingredients for a full-featured holiday revel. Some don’t have families. Others don’t have much fondness for turkey or the Dallas Cowboys. Still others can’t quite figure out how to get the cranberry sauce out of the can without destroying the charming double rings. For your Curmudgeon, Thanksgiving Day is a remembrance of a day he faced death for no good reason at all.
Once upon a time, your Curmudgeon had a relative with wealth, who shall henceforth be called Aunt Lil. Aunt Lil had three things in great measure: money, caustic opinions, and a steely resistance to unpleasant facts. Inasmuch as the rest of the family was less than pecunious, and hoped to share in the proceeds from Aunt Lil’s much-anticipated passing to the next world, we were all unctuously deferential toward her, and far more forbearing of her less agreeable side than we ought to have been.
When your Curmudgeon was a fuzz-chinned sprat in his middle teenage years, a promising looking apprentice adult but little more, there came a Thanksgiving when Aunt Lil decided that she, rather than your Curmudgeon’s nuclear family, would host the day’s feast. She announced this decision with the imperiousness of a Roman Caesar. She accompanied the announcement with the astonishing addendum that she, and no one else, would prepare the food.
Aunt Lil could not cook.
Your Curmudgeon, even though of tender years, was already an accomplished cook, having been tutored in the art by a father whose life work was in food. One of Dad’s most prized possessions was a cookbook he’d been given by the head chef at the Hunter’s Lodge in Westchester: 832 recipes for potatoes. Dad pored over that tome as if it were the Rosetta Stone. Perhaps, to him, it was; he never did manage to get “au gratin” right. Anyway, Dad had passed his knowledge and skills along to your Curmudgeon, who’d found that he enjoyed their exercise — and never more so than when the stakes were high.
Being of tender years, your Curmudgeon dared to suggest to Aunt Lil that she accept his assistance with the Thanksgiving repast. The suggestion was dismissed with prejudice. There was a grimace of horror from Dad, who feared that your Curmudgeon would continue by Mentioning The Unmentionable: that Aunt Lil was barely competent to pour milk over cold cereal. But even in his tenderer years, your Curmudgeon wasn’t that indiscreet.
On the appointed day, we dutifully presented ourselves at Aunt Lil’s magnificent apartment in the Bronx — yes, there was a time when people of means lived in the Bronx, and it may come again — and submitted ourselves to her culinary ministrations. True to her word, she’d done it all herself, from the appetizers to the pies. And no, it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared.
It was worse. Much, much worse.
Aunt Lil had somehow formed the fixed idea that you could roast a turkey in an hour, independent of its size. Since there are very few three-pound turkeys around at Thanksgiving, and none that could feed a roster of twenty-eight people, this was, if you’ll pardon the expression, a recipe for calamity. And calamity duly ensued, for every one of the invitees ate of that ruddy pink turkey and smiled while he did it.
All became ill. Seven wound up in the hospital that evening with severe food poisoning. Your Curmudgeon was one. (Aunt Lil was not. Subsequent familial debate has not settled whether Aunt Lil ate of her own creation. No one was ever willing to state unambiguously that he saw her do so.)
As your Curmudgeon writhed in the unique agony of an empty digestive tract that strained to empty itself still further in complete disregard for facts or logic, he pondered the train of decisions that had brought him and six of his relatives to that sorry state. He contemplated all the things he’d wanted to do with his life, that now seemed destined to remain undone. He thought about the mess he called his “priorities,” and what he might have done about them had he known that his time on Earth was to be so short.
To cut to the credits, all who were afflicted lived. Your Curmudgeon would face death again several times: from extreme illness, from a fall off a cliff face, and from the lunatic rage of a crazy woman he’d unwisely invited to share his home. But his first confrontation with the Destroyer of Delights and Sunderer of Societies was the most important one, for the lesson it bore is one he’s never forgotten.
Time is the ultimate gift.
Time is the medium within which we temporally bound creatures must work. Time is the dimension within which we plan, and execute our plans, and reap the rewards or the lessons they generate. But time is not ours to command.
In his masterpiece The Screwtape Letters — and really, how often has that much wisdom been compressed into that few pages? — C. S. Lewis’s devil-protagonist declaims on the folly of asserting the ownership of time, in particular the time of one’s life:
You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption “My time is my own.” Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.
You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and the moon as his chattels.
This is the forward edge on the sword of time, the somber face of the ticking clock, that two-handed engine which will one day strike, and strike no more. We cannot bottle time. We are forbidden by the laws of the universe to know how much time we’ll have. Though memory suggests otherwise, the only instant we can be sure of is now — and it slips from our grasp before we can even finish pronouncing its name.
When a man elects to take a risk to his life, as we all do innumerable times each day, he risks the retraction of the gift of time all at once. That’s not an argument for taking no risks; it’s a reminder that the hoped-for returns from a risk ought to be measured carefully against the possible price for pursuing them.
Twenty-seven people sat down to Aunt Lil’s table and ate of her visibly dangerous, nearly lethal turkey because they didn’t want to offend a woman worth millions of dollars. None of us really liked her personally, but we surely loved our dream of inheriting some fraction of her wealth.
Was that a worthy end, to incur so great a risk? Even if no one else did, your Curmudgeon and his Dad knew what the risk would be. What was our excuse?
Aunt Lil died intestate, by the way.
Your Curmudgeon is growing old. The sense of time running out has been weighing heavily upon him lately. He’s been reviewing his goals, especially the ones that seem to be moving out of reach, and straining to make some sense of the things to which he’s given his life. It’s not a uniformly pleasant enterprise. It involves confronting a lot of utter folly and wondering how he could have been so stupid, as he was at Aunt Lil’s dinner table three decades and more ago.
But it also involves appreciating how many opportunities he’s had, how every pain visited upon him carried with it a lesson that would enlarge his understanding and prove valuable later in his life, and how even his worst failures were occasions for a great deal of hope and joy. This is the rearward edge on the sword of time: the ability to look backward over one’s life and say, despite any and all regrets, “an ill favoured thing, but mine own,” and therefore precious.
And so, on this Thanksgiving Day in the year of Our Lord 2003, your Curmudgeon will give thanks simply for having lived. For having survived to laugh at his own stupidity. For having learned how much there is to know that he will never know. For having loved, often unwisely but never unwillingly, and having been loved in return. For all the failures, all the pain, all the triumphs and all the joys. These things are inextricably bound in the thread of time, whether Clotho spins it coarse or fine, whether Lachesis weaves it loose or dense, whether Atropos lets it run luxuriantly long or hacks it cruelly short. It was all pure gift, as is whatever portion remains to come.
Like any other sort of thread, this gift is what one makes of it.
Francis W. Porretto
Curmudgeon Emeritus to the World Wide Web
Mount Sinai, New York
November 27, 2003