Thanksgiving Feast: Food for some, education for one
Ive always felt slightly uneasy about Thanksgiving. I owe this to my mother, who is English. A student of history, she finds it rather crude how self-congratulatory we Americans are about the holiday. Look how we made the savages cower in front of us with peace offerings from their hard-earned harvest, she says mockingly. But dont fret, my child, you gave them firewater and pestilence in return!So yesterday, desperate to assuage the guilt of my forefathers wholesale genocide, and without any idea how to baste, let alone bake, a turkey, I decided to volunteer with a local charity. I dont have much talent in the culinary arts, but I can ladle out gravy with great daring and panache, and so figured my skills could best be put to use serving at a homeless shelter.Unfortunately for me (and, considerably more so, for some very gruff gentlemen living under Glenwoods Grand Avenue Bridge) there are no homeless shelters in the valley. I did discover, however, that a local organization was running a free turkey dinner all day and that everyone was welcome.I was skeptical about going down to Glenwood. The name of the organization, “the Fraternal Order of Eagles,” had a Masonic ring, and considering that my one run-in with a secret society in university left me naked and confused on the side of a road, I was concerned that if I messed up some secret handshake I would find myself again a rather embarrassed hitchhiker. As it turns out, the Eagles dont wear heavy robes or have secret handshakes (at least as far as I know). The Fraternal Order of Eagles is a 100-year-old organization whose motto is people helping people. The chapter in Glenwood is anything but intimidating. The main room in the building was an opera hall in the 19th century; the Eagles use it as a bingo hall these days. The members are tradesmen mostly, locals with workman hands and tough, weathered faces. Each Thanksgiving since 1984, the Eagles host a free community dinner from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some of them looked rather ridiculous in dainty white cooking aprons over Western shirts and well-worn jeans, but they donned the aprons with such seriousness that it was hardly noticeable. To the Eagles, volunteering, like mining or construction or carpentering, is serious work, and they werent messing around with their free dinner. They arrived at the lodge at 3 a.m. to start making dinner, and in total they managed to prepare approximately 18 turkeys, 140 pounds of potatoes, 72 cans of cranberry sauce, 40 pounds of corn, 18 dozen rolls and 40 pumpkin pies.”I don’t mind,” Eagle member Tom Rowan said over a well-earned Budweiser. “It’s better than sitting at home by myself anyway.”The dining room was sparsely decorated, place mats designed by local Glenwood Elementary students providing some much-needed character. But with the room filled with colorful locals of all ages, it felt warm and cozy. One of the few decorations on the wall was a pair of pictures of the Glenwood chapter’s founder, George Weirick. The first was taken in 1902 when Weirick was handsome and young. The adjacent picture is dated 1963, the year Weirick died, and the handsome young man had become wrinkled and aged and very obviously near death. The two pictures struck me as slightly creepy, but the implication, I think, was clear to everyone: We are all fragile, all destined for demise, so while we are strong and healthy we should do all we can to help each other.Because the Eagles in the advertisements had promised to turn away nobody, the dinner attracted a variety of people single men, homeless people, passing travelers, struggling families. I met one man who lived in a tent about a miles hike from Glenwood. He had descended from the hills, he told me, because his friend Nina was working at the dinner.For me, the most touching part of the day came when a group of 14 locals sat down together at a long table. They hadnt come together, hadnt planned to meet up. They were from a local neighborhood and just happened to know and like each other. They piled their plates high, one young man helping a neighbors father whose hands were infirm, another woman mushing cranberry and mashed potatoes for her neighbors child. They gathered around the table and, before diving in, they observed a moment of silence. You see, Mother, this is what the holiday is about. Its not about some historic event that happened many years ago. Its about slowing down lifes hustle and bustle, its fits and spasms. Its about friends and loved ones gathering around a table, silently holding hands, and, in thanksgiving, sharing a brief moment of grace.[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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