It will not be the same in the old neighborhood this Thanksgiving. It will not be the same anywhere where Thanksgiving is celebrated. Our gatherings will be small. The required restraint will be severely tested. Much of the time we’ll wear masks that will hide the lovely smiles of those we love so dearly.
We are a stubborn and proud people. We are not convinced easily. Perhaps we are still not totally convinced when we sit around the dinner table that all the safety measures are necessary. But this ugly virus has hit our family as it may have hit yours. We are all now part of a group none of us want to be members of. We realize this virus is real, not political.
At first our conversation will be somewhat muted. No doubt caused by the absence of loved ones who are not part of our household. Those whom we’ve had to exclude from our celebration. “Celebration?” It doesn’t seem like a celebration without them. This cruel pandemic has forced us into a selection process none of us could’ve ever imagined. Our family made smaller, truncated by this virulence that hangs in the air. Unseen. Deadly. An unwelcome visitor that has changed our lives dramatically these past nine months. And now a presence that knows not evil, but is by its indifference to whom it strikes, a terrible evil. A vile thing that is about to steal the joy of our most beloved national holiday. And yet, somehow we cannot let it triumph. Somehow we must overcome it. Survive, not only physically, but emotionally.
We will figure it out tomorrow. Especially around here in the old neighborhood, where for all its flaws, it is still a beacon of light in our lives. There is no area that appreciates tradition more than South Philly. That adores tradition. That worships the very idea of tradition. What sustains us more than our tradition? What makes joyous our memories more than tradition?
On the surface, we share the same tradition on Thanksgiving as any other Americans. But each of us shapes our own tradition through our own personal experience. For each of us, Thanksgiving carries unique and special memories all our own. I don’t mean just the food that we eat, although food is a very important part of our Thanksgivings. And downtown that will likely mean that the turkey will get less attention than the raviolis. These memories are specific to each of us.
In my teen years, it was football. Southern against Southeast Catholic (now Neumann-Goretti). Frosty mid-mornings filled with sunshine. The field at 10th and Bigler comes alive with the excitement of fresh-faced students and older alumni reliving their youth, even if only for a few hours. The sound of the band. The cheerleaders. The boundless excitement that began our Thanksgivings — was it 10,000 years ago or was it just yesterday?
The smell of turkey roasting in the oven — the beautiful smell that meant Thanksgiving, that meant home, that meant love and everything we cherish about life. Dad always impatient for the turkey to be served. Gently badgering mom like a 6-year-old. “Is it ready, yet?”
Noon. Football again. This time on TV. The Lions and Packers. The old stadium in Detroit made lovely by swirling snowflakes. The booming voice of Van Patrick setting the scene.
The grateful prayers offered up. The endless feast. The recounting of Thanksgivings past with loved ones around the table. The dishes cleared. The old Michigan Rummy game. The kids excited to be playing with the grown-ups. Betting pennies that were just props. Catching grandmom cheating, doing so just to draw laughs at her hilarious larceny. The men already dozing in easy chairs in the living room. Sated by turkey and pumpkin pie and more football —the tryptophan working its magic. Producing almost musical snores. Making new memories for the Thanksgivings of the future.
Thanksgiving will not be like that tomorrow. But even the insidious power of the virus can’t steal these memories from us. It cannot blot out the sparks that still comfort us amidst the harsh, stubborn reality that has stricken us this year. It is these memories and the presence of those around us — though diminished in number — that will get us through this nightmare of 2020. It is our memories that will act as the temporary antidote to this wicked plague that threatens to overwhelm us. It is the knowledge that we will get beyond this time. That with a mask, some hand sanitizer and some social distance and, yes, a little luck, that we will live to see a better future. A future that again includes wonderful Thanksgivings.
It will not be easy. There is yet ahead a more solemn Christmas than we would like. The New Year’s Eve champagne will have to be enjoyed in relative solitude. Our beloved Mummers Day Parade canceled back in July. But there is no greater motivation to survive and get through these times than the thought of being here when the curse of the pandemic is lifted. When the entire world will erupt as one with joy.
And the joy will not be greater anywhere than here in South Philly. When our traditions will be renewed. Where once again we’ll be able to embrace families and friends without fear. Where the sun will shine again. Brighter than ever.
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