Giving thanks from afar
TEL AVIV — Thanksgiving was the morning I put on the year's new warm coat for the first time. Year after year, my father and I would set out walking a mile down Central Park West until we arrived at the parade route. I would scamper, shivering at the cold wind blowing off the side streets and counting the blocks, hoping we would arrive early enough to get a place at curbside. My father would pace steadfastly beside me, hands clasped behind his back.
One year he sighed inexplicably and said, "Time flies. Before you look around, you'll be walking to this parade with your own children."
But I grew up to live abroad. I cannot retrace the route with my children, and do not see the flyers pasted on every meter: "No Parking - Parade Today."
A few Thanksgivings ago in the International Herald Tribune, I came across a photo of the Snoopy balloon flouncing down the avenue. I ran to show my young daughter, began explaining about the helium gas, and about how the proud employees of a giant department store guide the rubber dog by many ropes attached to his inflated body.
Snoopy, I told her, is as high above the ground as the third floor of an apartment building. He is as big as a swimming pool. But she gazed at the photo uncomprehendingly. Even in an era where everything is possible, if you've never seen the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on the streets of New York, it is a spectacle hard to imagine.
St. Paul's Cathedral in London holds a special service in honor of Thanksgiving. Fulbright fellows gather for makeshift dinners of foreign turkey, where the stuffing never comes out right. Overseas teachers in American international schools invite each other over, trying to recapture Salem in Sri Lanka and Santiago. Yet often just being together brings the holiday to life. Cities all over the globe extend a forum to Americans feeling suddenly tetherless on the fourth Thursday in November.
Holidays in absentia recall the bifurcation inherent in someone who has chosen to be abroad. Nostalgia invites ambivalence, even regret. When expatriates sit together over a Thanksgiving feast, it's partially for fun, partially as a litmus test of their own buried uncertainties.
An expatriate banquet has ludicrous overtones. How can you eat pumpkin pie in good faith so far from Plymouth Rock? It doesn't sit right, commemorating Myles Standish with cacti growing outside the window. "We gather together ..." sounds off-key displaced thousands of miles from a Thanksgiving assembly.
Attending Thanksgiving dinner feels real only after passing one elementary school after the next on the drive over, seeing stenciled turkeys and Pilgrim hats cut out of construction paper pasted on the window panes of each.
And yet, the pull remains. Thanksgiving is the one New World holiday with which many immigrant parents feel at home. On Thanksgiving it doesn't matter if you have an accent. No holiday is more quintessentially American - but actually it celebrates the greenhorn, immigrants who succeeded in making the life switch. Newcomers feel that in their bones.
Extended families sit around extended tables with their first generation children, relishing the trappings of a celebration that internalizes their naturalized Americanism.
Greeks, Italians, Polish - they all try their hand at the whimsical sweet potato concoction fabricated with corn flakes and marshmallows. The Norman Rockwell idealization is reproduced in the homes of countless immigrants long after "real" Americans have ceased trying to look like a magazine cover family.
By mid-October, college students start asking one another, "Will you be going home for Thanksgiving?" Although less than a month before winter break, when most dormitories have to be vacated, the majority does its best to go home at Thanksgiving, too. A college campus is a lonely place on the fourth weekend in November, with bare branches and a deserted library.
My father was right. Time did fly, and things changed more than he could have imagined. I may not be able to make the Thanksgiving Day parade in person this year, but my heart will be there doubly strong.
I will be at curbside among all my fellow New Yorkers who have the richness of soul to celebrate the holiday, now more than ever before, knowing what's precious. I will see the children smile as they watch a jubilant Snoopy aloft above their heads.
Most of all I will be saluting that grandson of immigrants, our hero in the reviewing stand: Rudolph Giuliani.
Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and writer living near Tel Aviv. She writes a column for The Jerusalem Post.