What a Prosperous Man Should Feel


November 23, 1992|By TIM BAKER

My turkey has been on order for a month. I'll pick it up Wednesday morning. It's a big one -- 25 pounds. I've already done the rest of my grocery shopping. The refrigerator is stuffed with shallots and celery, dill and white mushrooms, parsley and sweet potatoes.

If I leave the French bread out for the next two days, it will turn hard and stale enough to make good bread crumbs. A friend of mine told me about a new way to do oyster stuffing. I can't wait to try it.

First thing Thursday morning I'll dress and stuff the turkey. The smell of sage and thyme will drift through our house. The bird should go in the oven by 11 o'clock. I'll run my finger down the recipe to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. Stains spot the familiar page in my cookbook. My notes in the margin remind me about the adjustments which have worked in the past. And warn me about those that haven't.

Everybody will begin to show up around 5. My mother and father always arrive early. She brings the sauerkraut. He brings the wine. My sister and her family will come in loudly, having fun. One of my wife's brothers will give our dear friend Della a ride.

Dinner's served at 6.30. My wife has set the table and decorated it with flowers. We've added the extra leaves so it fills the dining room. My father will help me with the carving while I struggle with the gravy at the last minute. We pass our plates. Talk and laugh. Somebody remembers when my sister and I were kids. There were so many people at the table one year that one of us asked Daddy for seconds before he had even finished carving a first helping for himself.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Despite all the work and all the hubbub, the day seems simple and uncluttered. It isn't buried under presents. It doesn't highlight religious differences.

I chop and stir. Baste the turkey every half an hour. Take a mid-afternoon walk. Watch the winter sun set through the trees. It lights up the red browns and golden yellows in the woods behind our house.

I give thanks.

For a loving wife and children. For a family that lives nearby and gathers often throughout the year. A warm house. Good food. Good friends.

Do I deserve these bounties? Am I not entitled to them? After all, character is fate, we're often told and more often assume. If that's true, then what an admirable man am I to have so wisely chosen parents who have cared and sacrificed for me. What have I done to earn a wife who stays beside me, children who delight me, and a country that protects me?

The ancient Greeks had a concept -- aidos. I've read that the word is difficult to translate into English. It means the feeling which should well up in a prosperous man when he stands in the presence of the unfortunate. It's not compassion. Instead it's the realization that the difference between him and those poor wretches is not deserved.

Why is this word difficult to translate into our language? Into my life? The Greek idea makes me uncomfortable. Its implications stir up voices in my head. They mock my happy tacit assumptions about who I am and how I live.

What should I feel when I see starving Somalis on television? When I pass homeless people on the street? I have been content with pity, sympathy, charity, noblesse oblige. In fact, there are days when I walk around the man lying on the sidewalk and look at him with distaste and even contempt.

It incites a revolution in my mind to consider the possibility that the difference between the two of us is completely arbitrary. Totally undeserved. I do not, will not, can not think it -- that there but for the grace of God . . . There but for the play of fate and fortune . . .

Or what if there is not any difference between that man and me? Suppose our seeming separateness rests on some colossal misconception -- the great illusion that we are not all one.

How would I live my life if I truly accepted these concepts? Would I content myself with annual checks to charities and an occasional afternoon behind the counter at a soup kitchen? Or would I take all that I have and give it to the poor?

I'll cook my turkey at 325 degrees. It takes about five hours. Near the end I'll cover the breast with aluminum foil. The skin will brown to a deep mahogany. I'll let the bird cool for an hour or so before my father and I begin to carve. Things get hectic at the end. There are so many pots on the stove. So much food.

When everyone's served, I'll read the blessings. We'll begin, as we always do, with ''America the Beautiful.'' This year I'm also going to read the words to Woodie Guthrie's song:

This land is your land, this land is my land,

From California to the New York island,

From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters,

This land was made for you and me.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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