And so the rush of another holiday season begins. Thanksgiving Day is upon us, and for many there will be no stopping until that last hangover or food coma come January 2nd. This year the frenzy appears to be on steroids, as Black Friday now begins the minute you’ve eaten your last piece of pumpkin pie. It all seems to be rushing by at hyper-speed and we haven’t even eaten a leftover turkey sandwich yet. My own current state of limited energy has forced me to evaluate how I spend my time in a way I’d never imagined. It’s not a matter of “time” (I’ve got plenty of that), but the fact that each thing I “do” means I won’t have the energy to do something else. I’m learning to chose wisely and it makes it oh so much easier to “not do” many things. This has left me feeling a bit like a character in a Matrix movie…I’m moving in slow motion as people and things are wuushhhing by me at warp speed. I’m already gaining a new perspective on the holiday ruuusshhhh…
This past year I was given a photo of my great-grandfather Henry Otte and his second wife Mattie. And while I don’t have a definitive date of when this photo was taken, I have deduced from their ages that it was likely taken in the late 1930’s up to 1940. My first thought on seeing this image is that it is a quintessential Rockwellian moment…the family gathered around the plump turkey ready for a celebration. I even wondered to myself as to whether the photographer had been influenced to take this particular shot thinking perhaps he’d recently seen that Rockwell image in the Saturday Evening Post. As it turns out, I had it turned around…it was Norman Rockwell who was inspired by my family…and the hundreds of thousands of similar families… who gathered around their Thanksgiving table, presenting the turkey to their gathered guests.
I am left to believe that Thanksgiving was an especially meaningful day for my great-grandfather Henry, as he had received the official patent for his Nebraska homestead on the day before Thanksgiving in 1913, the exact same day his brother Chris received his patent for the land next door. Their patents were signed by President Woodrow Wilson. While Chris eventually returned to the family home in Ohio, Henry forged a life on the plains…an existence made possible not just from “free” land but additional government programs including planned irrigation systems. When lumber arrived, Henry could move from his mud soddie and build a proper home for his wife and children, the place his two youngest sons would be born. After his first wife Mayme died of MS in 1930, he would marry Mattie, the widow of his brother Will. Will, the oldest brother, had come to Nebraska at the age of 16 and built both a farm and a successful cattle ranch. Will died of cancer in 1927.
And here in this photo we see them, Henry and Mattie…married only a few years, but two people who had already lived through unimaginable hardships. Yet on this day, Thanksgiving Day, they dressed up, set the table with their best linens, crystal, and silver, and gathered together some combination of Henry’s four and Mattie’s three adult children, along with their spouses and children. They had a lot to be thankful for. They were products of the American dream.
Norman Rockwell produced a series of paintings under the theme The Four Freedoms, inspired by the four essential human rights as identified by President Roosevelt during his State of the Union Address in January 1941: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. That famous Rockwell image that many of us refer to as the Thanksgiving painting is actually titled Freedom from Want. It first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1943. Freedom from Want seems a bit ironic given today’s Black Friday attitude towards celebrating this particular holiday. But in 1943, the idea of freedom from want represented the ability to achieve security and dignity. Our country was moving out of the Great Depression and dealing with yet another World War.
Printed alongside Rockwell’s image was an essay by Carlos Bulosan. While reading Bulosan’s words I was struck by how timely much of what he said still is. (I found it online at http://www.oovrag.com/essays/essay2008c-4.shtml)
Here are a few excerpts that made me think:
“It is only when we have plenty to eat—plenty of everything— that we begin to understand what freedom means. To us, freedom is not an intangible thing. When we have enough to eat, then we are healthy enough to enjoy what we eat. Then we have the time and ability to read and think and discuss things. Then we are not merely living but also becoming a creative part of life. It is only then that we become a growing part of democracy.”
“But sometimes we wonder if we are really a part of America. We recognize the main springs of American democracy in our right to form unions and bargain through them collectively, our opportunity to sell our products at reasonable prices, and the privilege of our children to attend schools where they learn the truth about the world in which they live. We also recognize the forces which have been trying to falsify American history—the forces which drive away many Americans to a corner of compromise with those who would distort the ideals of men that died for freedom.”
“We realize that what is wrong is not in our system of government, but in the ideals which were blasted away by a materialistic age.”
“The America we hope to see is not merely a physical but also a spiritual and intellectual world. We are the mirror of what America is.”
Just beyond Henry’s left elbow you can catch a glimpse of sheet music… Euday Bowman’s 12th Street Rag. Music was important to the Otte family. Henry’s son Fred (my grandfather) played the banjo, his son Earl played harmonica, and I believe it was their sister Ruth who played the piano. When the family got together, they played music. I have later pictures of Fred and Earl waling away with silly party hats atop their heads. The sound of the banjo still resonates in my heart like no other. It is the sound of family… of dignity and security… and happiness.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day tomorrow, it is my hope that each of us can be the mirror of what we believe.