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A Thanksgiving State of Mind

It’s a busy week.

Aren’t they all?

For me, it’s time to step back.

I find that if I don’t take the time to reflect on my desired state of mind, I will be too easily blown around by my emotional reactions to the family, workplace, and prevailing culture.

Those emotional headwinds include confusion, resentment, fear, and discouragement – a sense of weariness that leaves me “just wanting to get through it.”

I’ve discovered an alternative to that malaise: A Thanksgiving State of Mind. It comes from a desire for perspective, a way to see broader than what is in front of me. Nothing does that for me as robustly as remembering those who have died before me, leaving their powerful examples behind.

I reflect with deep appreciation about individuals in my extended family who have impacted my life, and who are no longer alive.

First on my list is Ella Bridget Cunningham Engels, my paternal grandmother.

What has stuck with me about her throughout the years was her stout character. She was not one of those doting old grandmas featured in movies and novels, the kind who tucked you into bed with a nighttime lullaby and sent you off with a hug and kiss.

This was a determined, worldly woman who ran her own fish fry restaurant after WW II. With forcefulness and vigor, she found a way to thrive despite the complete absence of her husband, whose schizophrenia confined him to the state-run psychiatric hospital for 22 years before he died.

Gram’s tough exterior could never completely hide her tenderness towards the mini terrorists in her home (her grandchildren). She loved and cared for me and my siblings while living with us throughout our childhood and adolescence.

Another dearly appreciated family member is my cousin, Nino Santamaria, who died two years ago in his native city of Valguarnera, Sicily.

Nino’s enduring family leadership has always inspired me. Family gatherings happened faithfully in his humble home, around dinner plates that never seemed big enough to hold all of the culinary offerings prepared by his wife, Cettina.

As a former mayor, and person of high integrity, Nino seemed to know everyone in town. When I visited, I always joined him for the passeggiata, the festive, evening stroll around town, to meet barbers and waitresses, priests and politicians.

Nino introduced me to the Italian concept of La Bella Figura, “The Good Impression,” a tendency to put one’s best foot forward that can easily morph into a kind of fakery. An excellent writer and master storyteller, Nino had a funny yarn at the ready for every occasion. His mischievous sense of humor convinced me of its disarming value.

Those who have died before me include those I have never met but admire with a full heart.

Perhaps ironically, cemetery visits tend to bring those people to life.

I recently visited the Old Plateau Cemetery in Africatown, outside Mobile, Alabama, the resting place of the last slaves shipped to America, in 1860. I walked from grave to grave, reading the names and inscriptions. “These were human beings with children, thoughts, feelings, and dreams,” I thought to myself. What must it have been like for each of them to try to make the most of their forced servitude? How did they emotionally survive the suffering?

I left the historic graveyard mobilized to continue dismantling my own ignorance and skin-deep biases.

Similarly, a few years ago, my son, Nick, and I visited the Normandy American Cemetery in France, located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, one of the landing beaches of the World War II Normandy Invasion. More than 9,000 white crosses commemorate the lives of young men killed in that battle. Their average age was 26. Of all the fallen soldiers, more were 19 years old than any other age.

As we walked among the crosses, an old man limped towards us, aided by a cane, and we began a conversation. The man traveled from Portland, Oregon to visit this particular cemetery. I asked why.

“I came here to see a buddy who died alongside me during the invasion,” he said. “After the war ended, I went to visit his mother. I promised her that one day, I would come here and pay my respects to her son. I’m finally getting around to keeping that promise.”

Remembering dear family members from the past and contemplating the unknown lives of those in our cemeteries helps me reflect on realities beyond my own small world. Such reflection has a calming effect that leaves me thankful for being alive.

A Thanksgiving State of Mind is my way to stay grounded for the holidays.

What is your way?

Personal note: This blog serves as my final offering for 2023. My sincere thanks to my faithful readers. Your comments throughout the year have helped me grow as a writer and as a human.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and those gathered around your table. Thank you for inviting me into your thoughts, and accepting my thoughts, throughout the year.


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