The year the pilgrims arrived at my house
By David Wantz, University of Indianapolis
My wife, Susan, was a professor at Franklin College of Indiana before becoming a professional photographer. One year, she asked one of the visiting scholars what her family was doing for Thanksgiving. Svetlana said they had no plans, so Susan invited the family to our dinner.
I was anxious. “What’s a few more plates?” she soothed. “We’ll round up another chair or two. It’ll be fine.”
Our Thanksgivings had been hectic affairs with family dropping in and out according to their own busy schedules. Neighbors with no local ties, stray students, widows and orphans, and other folks with no place to go found their way to our house. This would be the first year with actual non-Americans, though.
It’s one thing to have a bunch of Americans at your Thanksgiving table. They understand how to do turkey and dressing. Our new guests, however, were refugees, new to American customs. They had no context for celebrating a happy American Thanksgiving. They didn’t know about the Pilgrims and the Indian corn. Their little boy had never drawn a turkey in the shape of his hand or made a stovepipe hat out of black and white construction paper. They did not know how to “do” Thanksgiving, but they showed up anyway.
The Balkan war had forced them to flee Sarajevo with their entire lives stuffed into a few suitcases. I had no context for understanding what they went through. It must have been terrible hearing the gunfire and explosions in their neighborhood, leaving family behind. They were pilgrims seeking safety from the war and political upheaval in their own country: I was living in my own home, in a wealthy and stable land, with neighbors who did not shoot one another for being of different ancestry. All I could do was open my door and invite them in.
Over the years, more pilgrims, from all over the world, came to our annual feast. They began to bring their own friends to celebrate Thanksgiving: still more pilgrims who knew nothing of cranberries and pumpkins. My Thanksgiving had somehow become their Thanksgiving, too.
And then it happened. One year, we got outnumbered. There were more people from other countries sitting at tables in my home than there were Americans. They spoke languages I did not understand. They brought dishes I had never tasted before. They dressed differently, more formally than the blue-jeaned Americans. Looking around the room, I realized it was like the first Thanksgiving except we were the natives sitting amid a throng of pilgrims.
I never imagined myself as Squanto or Massasoit, welcoming strangers to the new land. As a child playing various roles in the annual fall school pageants, I figured myself to be more the Miles Standish type. I am, as are most Americans, descended from immigrants. At Thanksgiving, though, I am the native American welcoming the pilgrims. Some of these new pilgrims came here under duress, desperately seeking safety. Some of them came to America wanting to study or to find work. They all came seeking something they did not find at home. They keep coming back to my house on the last Thursday of November for a celebration they would not miss. The story of Thanksgiving is their story now, their part in the American epic.
I learned in freshman Biology the phrase, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny:” the development of the individual retells the story of the development of the species. It’s like that with Thanksgiving now. My little Thanksgiving dinner retells the American myth of that first Thanksgiving. At the beginning, the natives welcomed the strangers who had arrived on their shores. Today, I am the native welcoming other pilgrims. When we open our doors to pilgrims, we retell the story of America—part of it at least.
This little community of immigrants—all of us—feels the circle pulled a little tighter each year as we join with one another. Our traditions have melted together over the years as our lives have grown together. Borrowing a Passover tradition, we now place an Elijah’s glass of wine on the mantle to have a ready welcome for the next pilgrim to join us. The wine glass also reminds us of the ones who celebrated Thanksgiving with us in the past, whose shadows remain in the room. The youngest person among us sets the glass on the mantle; the older ones smile through their tears.
As the number of people from all backgrounds grew, I decided to recite a poem rather than say a prayer. A Thanksgiving prayer is a Collect, of sorts, a prayer that collects the thoughts of many into one utterance. I needed something more powerful than my own words to gather all the sentiments. I read Carl Sandburg’s poem Our Prayer of Thanks. In it Sandburg pauses to think about everything from the sun shining on weeds to a child’s laughter to the dead resting in their silver-handled coffins at the edge of town. For the great and the terrible and everything in between, Sandburg says a spare, yet profound, prayer of thanks.
On that late day in November, when I look around my house and see all those faces, when I hear all those languages and smell all those dishes, it makes me consider the great and the terrible and all things in between. I squeeze the hands holding mine and utter my own word of thanksgiving for that first year when the pilgrims came to my house.