Bearing tradition, enjoying a view

What I remember most are the walnuts. They sat in a little heap in the wooden bowl on the Welsh dresser. The nutcracker lay beside them, and the nutpicks stood like flagpoles in their midst. I never knew how they got there: sometime in early November they turned up, when the dregs of the Halloween jellybeans and candy corns had been cleared out of the bowl. I always eyed them with suspicion: nuts, to a small boy, were something found on sidewalks after school and hurled at squirrels. It never occurred to me that my mother had simply bought them or that anyone would actually want to eat them. I admired their endurance: there they sat, dinner after dinner, so much ignored as forgotten.

Until, that is, the great dinner at Thanksgiving. In our house it was prepared with an almost self-conscious sense of propriety, as though we were all solemnly engaged in a rite handed down from Pilgrim-times and upon which the stability of national tradition might well depend. The tasks fell different ways. To my mother went the roasting of the turkey -- filling the house with odors which, were it not for her authoritative voice banishing us from her kitchen, would have been impossibly tempting. To my father fell the building of the fire in the living room and the general supervising of the chairs -- for we always had guests, old friends who settled familiarly about the house, or students from the college who lived so far away or on such slender budgets that they couldn't get home for the four-day holiday.

To us, the children, for whom I now see that so much of it was done, fell the setting of the table. We were not big on decorations, preferring the simplicity of a white tablecloth with perhaps some colored leaves or a varnished gourd. But with great care we set out the black-and-cream English pottery with its Piranesi-like scenes of figures, staffs in hands, pointing across a stream at vine-colored ruins. I always liked those dishes: even before I knew enough about Victorian ideals to see how well these figures embodied their sense of adventure. To what, I remember thinking, were they pointing? And why, if they were men of distinction (as their dress certainly suggested) would they be pointing at an overgrown ruin?

I now see, I think, why: they were pointing to just the same sort of taste that led us, as celebrants of the Thanksgiving season, to value the splendid mix of man-made tradition and natural lushness. No Artist would have given them a modern building to point at. And I suspect no one would have wanted them pointing profusion of vegetation. I have sometimes wondered, since, whether my love for Thanksgiving would have been the same had we lived with a severe contemporary style in our pottery. I suppose one can never say. But I do know that the day had something of the aura of an Elizabethan masque, where the actors were themselves members of the family for whom the entertainment was written. We were ourselves, yet more: in the heightened roles we took on at that season, we were on the bank of that stream, staffs in hand, simultaneously pointing forward along our paths and backward into history.

And always, when the Massachusetts sun had set, and a couple of candles brightened the mantelpiece, somebody always remembered the walnuts. So with a seriousness appropriate to the occasion, we cracked and picked, sitting hunched over the coffee table and making altogether too much mess for the amount of nutmeat extracted.

But that was what Thanksgiving was all about: making far too much mess for the amount of food provided. Unless, that is, you were convinced -- as I think we were -- that something far more than food was at issue. For all the holidays of the year, Thanksgiving had for us, I now see, the distinction of being neither wholly religious nor wholly secular. Christmas and Easter, having swept down the centuries and hardened into patterns enforced by liturgy, had a self-suffuciency about them that didn't need our help: they were obviously going to survive no matter what our little family did. Memorial Day and Labor Day, on the other hand, were purely secular and would survive for the sheer joy of celebrating the approach of summer and, after the heat of August, the refreshment of autumn.

But Thanksgiving, it seemed, depended on the efforts of individuals within their own houses. And somehow the sense of those pilgrims setting up a table in the wilderness not a hundred miles from our house, thanking God for their harvest and sharing it with their native neighbors, brought into daily life with more than ordinary force the conviction that Diety mattered. So the day seemed then, and still seems, worth preserving: a chance to stand aside from the ordinary flow of experience, to lean on one's staff for a while and contemplate the view. And, now and then, to crack open something small, natural, and undecaying from the bowl on the sideboard.

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