At the dinner table today most of us are bound to be taking stock of all that’s missing just as much as we are counting our blessings.
Newburyport didn’t play Amesbury this morning, nor did Danvers play Gloucester. Lawrence didn’t face Central Catholic. The whole high school football season in Massachusetts has not happened this fall, as a matter of fact, let alone the rivalries usually settled every fourth Thursday in November.
Shawsheen Square in Andover — where marathon greats Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson usually line up ever year next to some accountant who only runs on the weekends — was quiet this morning. The Feaster Five Road Race, a Thanksgiving tradition that in in a good year draws nearly 10,000 runners and walkers, this year rallied a couple thousand people to participate in a “virtual race.”
Then there’s our table itself. Maybe we’ll have a turkey, potatoes and gravy. Less likely will we see Grandma and Grandpa, our parents, siblings, in-laws or cousins.
Long lines at COVID-19 testing stations over the past week suggested that many people intended to visit family on this most traveled of holidays, or have family come and visit them. Even more people were expected — or hoped, anyway — to heed the pleas of Gov. Charlie Baker and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging people to celebrate the holiday with members of their own households.
A pandemic still rages. A map of the United States showing rates of COVID-19 infections is colored with deep shades of orange, red and purple, and is anything but festive. It is impossible to think about this year’s Thanksgiving holiday without feeling a sense of absence.
At the same time it is important to remember that solemnity, if not loss, has in many ways always been at the root of our Thanksgivings.
So it was with the earliest days. The lore of the holiday recalls a 1621 harvest feast among Pilgrims and Wampanoag, about which few details are known. We do know the Pilgrims had settled the prior year at the site of an abandoned Wampanoag village, called Patuxet, whose inhabitants were killed by a devastating disease. We also know many of the colonists themselves fell ill after the Mayflower landed; only half of its passengers survived the first year to celebrate a harvest.
A sense of seriousness surrounded the first national day of thanksgiving, declared by the Continental Congress more than a century later, in 1777, according to a description of the holiday’s origins by Historic Patuxet and Plimoth Plantation. Almost a century after that, when President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November 1863, he found reason for gratitude despite a “civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.”
Pestilence that wipes out a population and war that breaks apart a country set today’s concerns into perspective. It is easy to tally our losses, but we should be even more mindful of all that’s been given to us.
Marvel, for example, at the lightning-fast development, and soon deployment, of vaccines that will inoculate millions of people against COVID-19. Be grateful for the health care workers and staff of nursing homes and assisted living centers who, fueled by a sense of duty and humanity, serve millions of afflicted. Remember those who give their lives to protect us, keep us safe and defend our freedom.
And, even if some of the chairs at our tables are empty, be grateful for our bounty, just as we are thankful for those in our community dedicated to making sure the needy are fed, on this and every other day.
As Rodgers, the marathoner, said in an interview, today’s cancelled road race in most years celebrates family, friends, health and thankfulness for its own sake. “We are very lucky,” he said. “We have to remember that.”
We may not be eating together today -- nor running or watching football -- but we can collectively keep all of those things in our minds and hearts.