A celebration of simple goodness with family

Published 3:15 pm Saturday, November 28, 2009

We now interrupt Mrs. Palin’s book tour to bring you Thanksgiving, a grand old holiday, and we in the book business are thankful for her, that a busy woman who wanted to tell her story chose the medium of ink and paper between hard covers. Her tour is not about politics. It’s about books.

Those big crowds waiting in the cold outside bookstores were looking forward to cozying up to her book and savoring the intense intimate pleasure of a memoir, the feeling that you and the author are close personal friends. You don’t get that feeling from watching someone on TV; you get it from a book. Mrs. Palin’s job was not to impress book reviewers or stake a claim to the Republican Party but to give pleasure to people who already love her, which evidently she did. Good for her.

And that’s the challenge of Thanksgiving — to gather among our kin who know us a little too well and have an amiable occasion enjoyed equally by all, at which nobody is stabbed through the heart with a carving knife.

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We’re a mobile and over-caffeinated people, and at every family gathering, amid the ancient aroma of turkey and sage and squash and sweet potatoes and a few pounds of butter, you’ll find some edgy individualists, someone who knows the true story of what happened on 9/11, the story that the mainstream media have suppressed. A tea-party devotee or two. Someone who believes that yeast is the secret of happiness. People capable of harangues and diatribes, but nobody wants this.

The family liberals smile at the family wingnuts. The vegetarian daughter-in-law produces her tofu loaf, which looks as if a large animal such as a buffalo came by and dropped it hot and steaming on the plate. We don’t comment on this. She believes that the treatment of turkeys is a moral blight on America, but she does not say so. The Unitarian cousin listens to the fervent Lutheran prayer and murmurs Amen. The Vikings fans and the Packers fans sit side by side.

It is the dinner of all dinners, generous and comforting and completely predictable, and a true test of civility, and we do it in gratitude for the simple goodness of life. Our consumer society is all about need and craving, and politics is so much about complaint and resentment, and here is a day devoted to something else.

My family gathers in the house that Dad built in 1947, by the fireplace that Great-Uncle Alfred, a stonemason, built when he was 80. He lived to be 90, and whenever you saw him and Aunt Millie, they were holding hands. Joining us will be cousin Dorothy Bacon, who recently told me that my grandfather James, who died before my time, loved to read and even out in the field raking hay with a team of horses he had a book in his hand; that he was often seen kissing Grandma; and that every night, until he was very old, he carried her in his arms up the stairs to bed. Good to know these things.

In my day, we went outdoors after dessert and ran off our dinner and when it was dark, were allowed back in the house, and we flopped down on the floor and listened to Uncle Lew tell about the night their house burned down in Charles City, Iowa, and afterward watched “The Bell Telephone Hour” on television with Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” and then a horn honked in the driveway and my sister came down from upstairs where she’d been primping in the bathroom and Mother said, “Tell him he has to come inside and pick you up, he can’t sit in the car and honk.” And so the boy came in. Sheepish, tongue-tied, hair oiled and swirled around on top, he stood as close to the door as possible and we inspected him as a potential relative and thought, “Naw. She could do better.”

I remember the urgency of that horn honking. It meant that Thanksgiving was over. The family that had gathered in a tight circle around the feast of tubers and turkey was now breaking up, in search of something finer. The call of the grown-up life. We all hear the honk and run away in hopes of finding a major romance and adventure and grandeur, and good luck with that, and meanwhile, life is good. Be grateful for it.

Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.