A Week of Thanks: My Last First Thanksgiving

Dawn breaks on my favorite day of they year.  This year, this day was sure to be full of intrigue. As I broke out the board and iron, I thought back to ten years before then; I thought back to the time when my grandmother, obviously not having my stubborn assertion that my mother needed to iron my shirt, took the time out of her Christmas Mass preparation to teach me how to iron.  How to use the stitches at the sides, shoulders, neck and sleeves to pull taught the fabric, drag and press, push and release the steam – so that I could be the master of my own meticulously pressed shirt.  Even now I have a profound sense of gratitude for that moment.  It was a point in which my grandmother shared how to fish, rather than just how to eat a fish.

In the process of falling hard for someone, all possible tools in the toolbox are sought to be implemented.  From the ironing board to the confection kitchen, where my family’s apple-cranberry crisp recipe, a personal favorite, would be utilized to gain the favor of the thirty-something headcount at the feast I was to attend in Manassas, Va.  Of the stories related to me, my girlfriend’s maternal extended family seemed to mirror in many ways my paternal extended family.  I was eager to impress.  On the itinerary was an afternoon dinner at her Aunt’s, to be followed by dessert with my family at our family friend’s back in Maryland.  The woman who would one day be my wife had been as eager as I to introduce me to those she loved the most.  From the first moment, we placed each other at the head of our lives.  I knew nearly immediately that this relationship was meant to be my last.  And so the introductions had to go well.

An uncommonly warm day for Thanksgiving, a football game was played in the backyard amidst frequent breaks for appetizers and alcohol.  I did not know it then, but that was to be the last Thanksgiving in which I would drink.  My wife is seated 2nd in her extended family in her generation. With just one cousin older than she, yet all in close proximity, there were plenty of dynamics into which one could intermingle.  Though an outsider, they all felt normal.  I had, a month previously, met her grandparents.  I had also met all of her four siblings and her parents.  But for that handful, the rest of the group was entirely new.  I vividly recall feeling at ease with her oldest cousin and his fiancee.  Likewise, there was a consortium of male cousins, all within a handful of years of one another, who were avid baseball fans and athletes.  When searching for organic topics of conversation, when one can rely on baseball as a common thread, all is well.

Dinner saw a series of folding tables with all the decor attached to her aunt’s dining room table.  There was a clear pecking order, as all good families should determine for themselves.  I was surprised to find myself and my girlfriend seated near to the 2nd generation.  By the focal points of the conversation, I could tell I was informally being interviewed.  In those moments, it is difficult to determine which are the biggest critics; which are the biggest fans.  As a person priding myself on understanding the woven fabric that makes up interpersonal communication, I worked hard, internally, to understand where the right buttons were located.  I intended to push them.  In all, I left that evening feeling as though I’d just been to a family reunion of my own.  Another box checked.  Both for them, and for me.  Family, I was taught, is vital.  Connections with your in-laws are important.  I was, and continue to be, blessed in that arena.

But for two years; one due to the hospice internment of my grandmother, the other for team tickets we had to the Ravens/49ers Thanksgiving game, we have made every year since.  It has become a custom to which I look forward annually.  Football games have morphed into some serious oyster habits.  We’ve gone from seated in the middle, to seated at the back, as our children need a little more wiggle room than we did that first year.  There have been significant additions.  Marriages.  Great-Grandchildren.  There has been one subtraction.  My wife’s grandfather passed a few months prior to our wedding.  This will be the sixth Thanksgiving he is not present in body.  I am Thankful for the family I consider to be mine.  I am Thankful for my wife’s grandmother.  I am Thankful for my wife’s parents and their siblings.  I am thankful for the boys, who have grown into men, who are my chief support group in all things baseball and politics.  I am Thankful I have had the opportunity to sit next to the same woman nine out of ten years.  I am blessed by these Graces.  I’ve done nothing to earn these traditions.  They have been bestowed upon me.  And perhaps, that is the most valuable lesson in understanding Thanksgiving; that what we have to be most Thankful for can never be of our own doing – for it is the undeserved- the unearned that comes with the greatest portion of humility.

Yours in the Pursuit of Happiness,

Will O’Connor

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