Michael Hicks: The best of Thanksgivings

Michael Hicks

My family began to gather together Thanksgiving weekend, as most do. My wife and I had the good fortune to be with our children. Their duties in college and military service make these moments more special as they become increasingly rare. It was a time of deep thanksgiving. It also occasioned us to ask what our most memorable Thanksgiving were, and what traditions we valued most. The answers were telling.

For me, a cherished memory was simply the many people my parents invited to dinner. It seemed almost always as if someone new joined us. I scarcely remember sitting with just them at a Thanksgiving. By the time my brother and I were in college and the service, my parents’ home became an assemblage of young people who couldn’t make it to their homes. My folks didn’t like empty chairs at dinner.

Fortunately, I married into a family that felt the same way. Their holiday meals featured as many as two dozen hungry souls. It is here I discovered that friendly competition on pie making may not be limited to Hoosier Thanksgivings, but here it reaches its fullest expression as art. This year, I am fortunate to have two full tables at my home, enough to justify two types of dressing, two turkeys and a whole lot of laughs.

These were great memories. When pressed, I had to say my most meaningful Thanksgiving was when I deployed. The food was, well, sandy. It was hot, but memorable only by the thoughtful toils of those who prepared it, and the men and women with whom I shared it.

Our command published Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation, which said in part “I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving.” I’m reminded he penned this only three months following Gettysburg, when the giving of thanks took special courage.

Lincoln went on to write “I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they also do, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Thanksgiving for Lincoln was deeply spiritual, but it also came directly in the midst of the Civil War, which risked the permanent dissolution of the Republic. His was a practical attention to the world’s gifts and toils. His words motivated later presidents to offer annual proclamations. The words from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 proclamation are especially poignant. For me, George H.W. Bush’s words are especially appealing as he asked us to “remember all those Americans abroad who labor to advance the ideals for which this great Nation stands.”

As memorable and meaningful as these are, my wife pointed out that the most meaningful Thanksgiving was more recent. For us, the COVID Thanksgiving of 2020 was most memorable, for the many reasons Lincoln, FDR or Bush proclaimed.

Our COVID Thanksgiving was smaller than we typically enjoyed because it was at the peak of the pandemic. The vaccines were still weeks away, and almost 25,000 people had died from COVID in the month before. Today we know that in November 2020, COVID deaths doubled to more than 53,500 then almost doubled again in December to 98,000 Americans. They peaked in January 2021 at 105,000 and halved in February as this miracle vaccine spread to the most vulnerable.

My daughter wasn’t allowed leave during the holiday, so she FaceTimed us from a mess hall in Colorado Springs. Most of us were together, having plotted an ‘outdoor’ social distancing meal. It was cold and raining, but our moods were bright. We put up tarps to cut the wind and rain and set tables and space heaters where we could all sit at a distance. The food was prepared in several houses, and delivered to this small ‘tent city’ on the Ohio River.

All the familiar foods were there. The grand turkey, the cornbread stuffing with chestnuts, the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, homegrown corn and green beans. There were salads of cabbage and nuts and salads of spring greens and oranges. There were even the Hoosier salads comprising mostly Cool Whip and fruit. One of these we label simply as ‘green stuff.’

It was no more than other meals we had enjoyed. It was made by the same hands, from the same recipes perfected by generations, from gardens faithfully tended a half-century. But, through some enchanted magic in the midst of that dark time, it seemed especially warm and filling. Huddled under quilts, a careful distance from a space heater, that meal tasted as close to perfection as I remember.

I’m sure it wasn’t really that close to perfection. It was cold outside, so the turkey doubtless dried out, the potatoes probably became lumpy and it rained on the pumpkin pie. Still, that’s not how any of us choose to remember it. I like to think that we embraced Victor Frankl’s observation that “everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I write this as the semester winds to an end. The class I held the Thursday before Thanksgiving, I armed my students with a few answers to questions their family may be prompted to ask an economics student. Now they can explain the supply-side effects of turkey pricing, should someone ask how their economics class is going. I do hope there are better conversations to be had.

We are more likely to recall that special meal when the world appears grim and desperate. Ironically, that memory will do double duty by making us appreciate more fully this meal consumed in warmth and proximity. As Clive S. Lewis wrote to a friend in 1948, “The times we live in are, as you say, grave: whether ‘graver than all others in history’ I do not know. But the evil that is closest always seems to be the most serious: for as with the eye so with the heart, it is a matter of one’s own perspective.”

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].