"The people I was eating with had four different first languages, and nine were not born in the United States.
One is severely retarded; two are currently homeless.
The oldest was born in the first decade of the century, the youngest in its last decade.
Some of the adults
But as we ate and gave thanks, those distinctions did not divide "
I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner in 1982. It was the year that I adopted my first son, who was 16 at the time. I knew that I didn't have very long to establish some family traditions, and I decided that one of them would be a turkey dinner with family and a few friends. Those friends were from Geneseo, temporarily living in Washington; and the family was Paul and I. I had done my shopping and was looking forward to this first Thanksgiving dinner in my home. Then, two days before the holiday, my friends called to say that they had to stay in Washington. So I had all the fixings for a feast, and there were only two of us.
Then I had an idea. Since Paul had had a very tough life, I thought it would be good for him to share Thanksgiving with some folks less fortunate than he. I called a friend of mine in Rochester who worked with refugees and asked if she knew a family that would like to come to my house for Thanksgiving. She suggested that I invite the Pao family, recently arrived from Cambodia. So Paul and I drove to Rochester on Thanksgiving Day to pick up four members of the Pao family. We returned to Geneseo with seven! Of the seven, only two spoke English. This was their first Thanksgiving in America, having barely escaped the "killing fields" of their native country.
In some ways, this was my favorite Thanksgiving because I knew how much I had to be thankful for. Paul had been separated from his violent mother when he was five and never saw her again. Yet he was not legally freed for adoption till age 14, and by then he was not regarded as very adoptable because he had done some pretty bad things. Since he was a blond kid from Indiana and I had once been a blond kid from Indiana, the old medievel refrain "there but for the grace of God go I" was constantly on my mind.
The Pao family had escaped death only because the person who was supposed to kill them let them go because he had known Mr. Pao when they were younger. The family once had on a dead snake to eat, and they had to conceal it in a bucket of dirt so some other starving people wouldn't kill them for it. They had lived in sub-human conditions in a refugee camp in Thailand before getting their opportunity to come to the United States. These were gentle people despite the horrors and indignities they had experienced. They were humble, willing to do any work in order to earn a living, and yet they had a dignity that could not be missed. Though they have moved to Providence, Rhode Island since our Thanksgivings together, the Pao family and I remain friends. And a few years ago, when Paul was having difficult times and needed a place to live and work, they took him in.
The next year, Thanksgiving included my second son, Gualberto, as well as the Pao family. But it was a troublesome day because it began with a visit to Paul in the Livingston County Jail, where he was being held for criminal trespass. Somehow, I had thought that adopting Paul and providing him with a stable and loving home would magically erase an unimaginable number of hurts and rejections that he had experienced. I was wrong.
In 1986, my Thanksgiving table was enlarged to make room for a Vietnamese mother and her American son, whom my church had settled in Geneseo. In 1988, I added my third son, Angel, to our table.
Three years later, I added a second table. My mom had moved to Geneseo after my dad's death, and I had become close to a Vietnamese family with 11 children who had settled in Geneseo. Not all 13 came for dinner, but nevertheless we were too many to sit around one dinner table.
In the next few years there were further additions and occasional subtractions. Some of the boys' girlfriends came and went, a young man from Puerto Rico whose family I knew came during his college years, the Pao family moved away, several new faculty colleagues from the college joined us, and other young people called my house home.
Last week, we had dinner for 23 people. There were two who had never eaten Thanksgiving dinner with us, in addition to most of the regulars. What made it special for me was that all three of my sons were home. We had not all been together since 1988, and the three of them have not always gotten along well. I'm not they would get along well today if they were together for a long time. But for a day, there was cordiality between them.
As I was serving food at the two large tables, it occurred to me how genuinely American our celebration was. There were Catholics and Protestants and Buddhists and people of no religious faith. The people I was eating with had four different first languages (English, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Korean), and nine were not born in the United States. One is severely retarded; two are currently homeless. The oldest was born in the first decade of the century, the youngest in its last decade. Some of the adults did not finish high school, and there were two with Ph.Ds. But as we ate and gave thanks, those distinctions did not divide and there was no hierarchy. Do I have a lot to be thankful for!