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     Today, all across the country, families large and small will gather in homes to celebrate Thanksgiving. In many of these homes, politics and current events will be on their minds and at the tips of their tongues.

     There will be conversations.  Some civil, some heated, some involving flying blobs of cranberry goop and spoon-flicked peas.  Most of these conversations won’t persuade anyone this way or that, but it's always fun to try.

     Some of these talks will happen quietly...away from the fray...but leave a lasting impression nonetheless.  Below the fold is a story that was sent to me by Joe Cummins, the author of several books including one of my favorites, Anything for a Vote.  It's one of those moments you wish had been captured on video.  It's a brief pause at the intersection where hope and reality meet, and it's a pleasure to post it here:

                      Thanksgiving Day

     Yesterday my nine-year-old daughter came home from school with an assignment that seemed, to both of us, daunting. Her job was to take the letters that make up the phrase Thanksgiving Day and find fifty different words contained in them. After about twenty minutes she had come up with eighteen---including thanks, giving, day, hay, say and think---but she was starting to fidget and mutter under her breath, the fourth grade way of saying I think I hear my Wii calling.

     So, reluctantly, I joined her. I say reluctantly because although I write for a living I’m not much good at word games, be it crossword puzzles or Scrabble. They tend to have so much less to do with the feeling of words, the way words and phrases operate together, than with definitions and counting. But as we sat down next to each other while a grey pre-Thanksgiving afternoon grew darker, I found myself enjoying the challenge and also enjoying being with her, without the television on or the phone ringing or the distractions of email pinging into my laptop.

     Just focusing on this simple phrase: Thanksgiving Day.

     Together we found tin, daisy, ding, sank and gas. I gave her knish. Much to my surprise, she followed up with Danish and even knew that it was a pastry as well as a nationality (this from a girl who eats only white things, won’t even touch chocolate). We came up with knit, dash, yank, yak, gin and din. Feeling delirious with dexterity we rattled off sing, king, sign and kind. She came up with tank which I immediately identified as a vehicle of war, which perplexed her—she thought tank was a receptacle to hold water or fuel.

     But as we reached the last ten words we both began to falter. The evening had now grown dark with the black dark of late November and we were tired, hungry and ready for my wife and her mother to come home. The words Thanksgiving Day began to swim before my eyes as I tried to force the phrase into fragments which might coalesce into new words. I remembered anew why I hated word games. But then, staring at day, a simple word came to me.

     "It starts with a ‘g,’" I told my daughter. "It means happy, merry, cheerful."
     She looked at me blankly.
     "You know," I told her. "Joyful, filled with laughter."
     Her blankness was beginning to turn to exasperation.
     "Okay," I told her, happy to have stumped her. "Gay!"
     "Gay," she said, puzzled. "Does that mean happy? I thought it meant like Ansell and Frank." Ansell and Frank are two of our close friends who are gay and whose son is a good friend of my daughter’s.
     "Well," I said somewhat lamely. "They are happy, too."

     I realized that my daughter knew the word gay only in the context of acceptance of a state different from but equal to the state of her parents or other couples in our community, just as she knew the word tank only in the context of reservoir to be filled. Looking at her, I decided to push my luck.

     "What about a word that rhymes with tin?" I asked her. "Means doing wrong things, hurting people?"
     Once again, I was frustrating her.
     "Daddy, you have to give me a better hint than that!"
     "S-i-n," I told her. "Haven’t you ever heard of the word sin?"
     She crossed her eyes in a pantomime of boredom. "No," she said. "What does it mean, again?"

     Growing up Catholic in the 1950s and 1960s, I had been shaped—--possibly disfigured—--by that word. And my daughter had never heard of it.

     As I looked down at the words Thanksgiving Day, I felt like I finally had some idea of what they meant.


Originally posted to Bill in Portland Maine on Thu Nov 27, 2008 at 08:31 AM PST.

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