When my kids were younger, one of the Thanksgiving rituals they were not thankful for was the moment my wife, Corine, asked them each to say something they were grateful for.
It never came as a surprise. Indeed, she would place little turkeys cut out of construction paper and a pencil on each plate hours ahead. Children and guests were reminded, frequently, before dinner to make sure they filled them out.
At some point after the turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce feast was over, we would go around the table as each person read their contribution. There was often much eye-rolling leading up to this ritual.
As usual, however, my wife was right: This was a great exercise in expressing gratitude for kids and adults alike. As the children grew, the reflections grew as well. Life adventures, study and travel, experiences with other cultures, and a maturing perspective of what constitutes blessings made all of us more thoughtful.
“I’m grateful for my family” became “I’m grateful for the loving and supportive home that my parents provided.” Over time they had enough experience to know that not every family comes with those simple necessities.
Life doesn’t shelter anyone for very long, and they became more familiar with poverty, with divorce, with abuse, and all the other challenges that are reminders not to take anything for granted.
A family counselor once told some concerned parents I know that just having an intact marriage and books in the house already gave their children a huge advantage in life. A husband who respects and loves his wife and a wife who respects and loves her husband might in days past have been a baseline expectation.
Now it is a cultural marker for success. Indeed, intact marriages are becoming an indicator of class status. Upper middle-class marriages are more often intact and resilient, reminding one of the Scripture quotes that to he who has much, more has been given. We don’t just have a wealth gap. We have a marriage gap.
The advantage of an intact family may be simply that it is more stable and more economically secure. I’d like to think that a good marriage also provides myriad daily examples of sacrificial love that will stand children in good stead as they assume responsibilities.
These little lessons are often not understood at the time. It may be years before a child turned adult fully realizes what one’s father or mother gave up, for each other, for the family.
The long hours to make ends meet. The sleepless night with a sick child. The dream deferred for the sake of a college tuition. The necessary but difficult move. Parents who help their neighbors or minister to the poor or volunteer in the church teach great lessons, too.
As a child, I remember our family driving to Mass one day. My father saw an elderly lady stumble and fall while crossing an intersection. He leapt out of the minivan we were packed into, and we watched as he helped her up and across the street. So obvious and so reflexive, but that example was worth a hundred lectures.
Sacrificial love is really the hard-won discipline of selflessness. It is an antidote to the epidemic of narcissism that afflicts us, the zero-sum calculations that have us placing our needs and our desires first, no matter what.
Of course, not every marriage lasts, and some of the most heroic and generous people I know are the mothers and fathers who have to go it alone. They do double duty after a spouse walks away, and their children get an example of dedication and selflessness that also will last a lifetime.
I remember a young priest who was giving a homily on the importance of a mom and a dad, and he sang the praises of the two-parent family. In the pew behind me was a friend whose husband had abandoned her and her children.
In raising her kids, she was a model of sacrificial love. She would be the first to say, however, it would have been so much better if she had had a spouse who was all in. That was one decision she had no control over.
As the classic Norman Rockwell painting makes clear, Thanksgiving is above all a feast for families. Large and small. Extended and nuclear. Single parent. Grandparent-headed. Friends gathered around a table away from home. Couples far from their grown children. All holding hands and giving thanks for “these thy gifts.”
The gifts are not just food and drink to sustain us, but all those we love beyond words, all those who make our lives richer, and who our love enriches as well.
It’s a lot to write on a paper turkey, but give it a try.