Holiday binds families, brings to mind blessings

November 26, 2008|By Ron Smith

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It not only prompts a gathering of my immediate family, which is a blessing in itself, but it also lets loose a stream of memories of my boyhood and Thanksgiving feasts enjoyed with other family members who gathered at our house on 109th Street in North Troy, N.Y. to celebrate the day and the knowing of each other. Nothing is more evocative of my earliest years than the smell of the turkey cooking in the oven, the potatoes, sauerkraut and other dishes simmering on the stove and the arrival of loved ones bringing us hugs and kisses and genuine delight in the occasion.

The earlier loved ones are mostly gone from this life, but I remember them anew at Thanksgiving. My mother fed 30 or more relatives and friends, year after year, without the slightest indication the long, hard work was anything other than a pleasure for her. The food she prepared was savory, plentiful and well appreciated. My cousin Jack and I had an annual contest during our adolescent years: We'd see which of us could eat the most turkey and trimmings and pie, both pumpkin and apple, and then we'd stagger outside and hang over the porch railing trying to catch our breaths in the chill air and swearing we'd never eat that much again, and keeping that promise only until the next Thanksgiving gathering.

My folks were Danes, a people not much given to showing emotion of any kind - I know that's a stereotype, but remember that all stereotypes are more or less true or they wouldn't endure - so there wasn't a lot of gushing over each other (which reminds of me of the joke about the Danish man who loved his wife so much, he almost told her). But there was a quiet sense of satisfaction that we'd all made it through another year and were able to give our thanks for that.

My father's father had come to this country in the late 1800s at the age of 19. He spoke not a word of English when he landed at Ellis Island and was told that his name, "Schmidt," might well serve him better here if he anglicized it to "Smith." So he did, which answers the question, often put to me, of how someone completely of Danish heritage could have my surname. He eventually ran a shoe repair shop, married and had four sons. I never knew my paternal grandfather, though I felt that in a way I did, through knowing my father and his three brothers. DNA is a powerful thing.

My mother grew up on a farm in Alden, Minn., a town of fewer than 300 residents. She was the first of seven children, and her maiden name was Mathiasen. She moved to New York with one of her sisters to take care of a well-to-do great uncle who lived in the Danish-American colony of 800 or so in Troy. We even had a Danish Evangelical Lutheran church in my neighborhood.

There is a Scandinavian sensibility, a stoicism that is perfectly captured in the stories of Garrison Keillor, which is why I enjoy his books and laugh at his tales on his Prairie Home Companion radio show, despite our vastly different political inclinations. Not that Troy was Lake Wobegon, but the part of Minnesota I visited many times over the years certainly was. Still is, in fact.

On Thanksgiving, I think about my mom and dad and his brothers, Oscar, Harold, and Leslie; of my aunts and cousins and friends not seen for so many years. I think about how fleeting life is, a mere eye-blink in the cosmic sense of things. I try to fully grasp how the only important thing in the end is love, and how love is expressed in different, sometimes bewildering ways by individual human beings.

I give thanks for the blessings I've enjoyed through sheer chance, for the support and guidance of my wife. I recall reading somewhere that the reason we briefly exist as conscious individuals is so we can know and converse with each other. That's the biggest blessing and something for which we can all be thankful. Have a great holiday.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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