The smile of the visitor from South Africa was worth a moment of thanksgiving in itself. The tribal names of her children back home came like music from her lips, and so did the laugh over her husband's complaint that she was spending too many dollars on transatlantic phone calls. Away from her family for advanced study in the United States, she said that, yes, she would like an invitation to somebody's home for Thanksgiving Day. She had already had a taste of November Americana, squeezing into a voting booth with a newfound friend (and being descended upon to sign a nuclear-freeze petition on the way out). Now she wanted to see what people did on this unexpected holiday, how they prepared the food for it, what it all meant to them.
What does Thanksgiving mean to Americans in 1981? Perhaps the visitor will get some clues at a household that plays the Thanksgiving game. You know, the one in which everybody writes something to be grateful for on a slip of paper; the slips are scrambled; and the group guesses who was grateful for what when the slips are drawn. Every crowd will probably have a jokester citing ''Anne's dimples'' or ''Friday.'' But there will also be those misty grins when a slip says ''Mom'' or ''the best brother in the world.'' And the circle may widen to ''peace'' or ''freedom'' or ''love'' or ''America'' or ''people helping each other in the world.''
It does not take a game, however, to remind Americans or anyone else of cause for thanksgiving amid whatever vicissitudes. The early settlers found joy in the harvest after a multitude of hardships. For many today, sufficient hardships remain to impel comfort, caring, and prayer by those who are counting their blessings.
Whoever has that visitor from South Africa to dinner on Thursday will see how buoyancy of spirit can rise above hardships to spread happiness to others. We hope she has a wonderful time - without, of course, eating too much turkey.