Even Betty Crocker is welcome here this year

  • Ellen Goodman / Boston Globe columnist
  • Wednesday, November 21, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

BOSTON — "I’ll be making the green bean casserole," says my aunt with a slight hint of defiance. She waits for my familiar retort, my annual and hostile review of the 1950s dish that will take its place on my 2001 table.

"The dreaded green bean casserole, you mean," I reply half-heartedly. The truth is that I am not up to the battle. Betty Crocker is welcome this year. Canned green beans and canned mushroom soup and canned onions: so be it.

Thanksgiving has come early and just in time. My eyes, fastened on anxieties of the world, now turn back home. My vision of a vulnerable, uncertain future now focuses on the perfect production — no, reproduction — of our family’s holiday history.

I pass up the new recipes in the paper for the old recipes in our family book. I want to make this year look, taste, like last year. Then maybe it will feel like last year.

Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday long before it was passed down one doorway and one generation into my hands. Now I am the keeper of this holiday.

But this year, I take nothing for granted. Not the plane bringing my children home. Not the raucous reunion that bounces off my dining room walls. And not, surely, our good luck.

A few days ago, I read a story about two brothers lost in the World Trade Center disaster. Every Thanksgiving Joe and Dan Shea made the same toast at the table: "How lucky are we. How lucky are we."

It became their trademark, the words that made the kids’ eyes roll in loving mockery. On Sept. 11, the Sheas ran out of luck.

Now I think about how often luck and loss compete for a place at the table in our personal and national history.

Do you remember studying that first Thanksgiving in 1621 as a celebration of good harvest, good fortune? The first families crossed the Atlantic in a wine ship called the Mayflower with their meager assortment of property: goats, sheep, beds, tables, spices.

One passenger brought 126 pairs of shoes. Another brought a copy of "Ceasar’s Gallic Wars" and a "History of Turkie."

In that first year, they lost half — half — their number. Governor Bradford lost his wife before she even went ashore. She fell — or jumped — off the ship while it sailed the barren coast of Cape Cod.

That winter, wives and husbands and children died of illness and famine so severe that at one point only seven were well enough to take care of the rest.

"No group of settlers in America," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, "was so ill-fitted by experience and equipment to cope with the wilderness as this little band of peasants, town laborers and shopkeepers; yet none came through their trials so magnificently."

Exactly 380 harvests ago, the remaining settlers and the Indians who had helped them survive shared their famous three-day feast. But each one of the Pilgrims was a mourner as well as celebrant. Each one bore a huge loss to this first Thanksgiving.

Is it so hard for their heirs to imagine such a gathering? My own table will be filled with family from 87 to 15 years old. Like every family, we know about luck and loss. We have our hollow places along with our full platters.

But this year there also are empty seats at the national table. We have lost towers full of Americans and our collective sense of security has been shattered. It’s not just the Shea family who will have trouble raising a glass to "how lucky are we."

At a time like this, tradition is an act of will, not inertia. It’s less a given than a gift.

We bake family tradition as ballast against the Sept. 11 alarm that rang out a single message: everything has changed. We serve tradition as proof of continuity in the midst of change, resilience in the midst of loss.

So on this Thanksgiving I will place my grandmother’s plates before children who never met her, but know her stories. We will eat lemon pie for the best of all reasons: because we always eat lemon pie.

And around my table, there will be comfort food, a heady old family recipe of green beans and gratitude.

Ellen Goodman can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or send e-mail to EllenGoodman@Globe.com.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Monday, Feb. 26

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2015 file photo, a tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp, Wash. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. The story was a top Washington state news item in 2015. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has proposed a plan to strengthen the ways that Washington can prevent and respond to wildfires. Franz released the 10-year plan last week as part of her $55 million budget request to the Legislature to improve the state's firefighting abilities (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Editorial: Wildfire threat calls for restoring full funding

Lawmakers should restore funding for fighting wildfires and call on one furry firefighter in particular.

Comment: Federal cuts to wildfire crews may hit at worst time

Conditions may increase the threat of wildfires just as the U.S. Forest Service is bracing for budget cuts.

Comment: Founders empowered Congree to support accurate news

The Post Office Act of 1790’s intent was to spread reliable information. The same goes for the media of the day.

Comment: Charity scandal shows Providence ignoring its mission

Ordered to forgive $157 million it charged the poor, the hospital system needs better oversight of officials.

Comment: Presidential primary launches state’s election season

With ballots in the mail, here’s what to know and how to prepare for making your choice for U.S. president.

A leasing sign in visible outside of A’cappella Apartment Homes on Wednesday, March 1, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Cap on rent can keep more people in their homes

The legislation balances affordability with the need to encourage growth in the stock of housing.

Jaime Benedict, who works as a substitute teacher, waves to drivers on the corner of Mukilteo Speedway and Harbor Pointe Boulevard while holding a sign in support of the $240 million capital bond proposal for Mukilteo School District on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Mukilteo, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Bar set unfairly high for passage of school bonds

Requiring 60 percent approval denies too many students the schools and facilities they deserve.

Flowers and a photo of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are placed near the Russian consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia's prison agency said. He was 47. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Comment: Navalny’s death only deepens resolve of Putin’s foes

Even in losing elections, Navalny and others have shown that opposition to Putin is effective.

Women’s health care supporters have chance to flip Congress seat

When Roe v. Wade was overturned it simply opened the floodgates to… Continue reading

Comment: Wildfire problem is matter of fuel load, not climate

By limiting the harvest of timber in the state we allowed the forests’ fuel load to grow; and then burn.

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, Feb. 25

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.