Edward Sandford Martin once wrote, “Thanksgiving Day comes, by statute, once a year; to the honest man it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow.” Today in America, we pause to ponder about the things for which we are grateful. The past couple of years have been difficult for many families and the store of things for which they are grateful is undoubtedly thinner than in the past. The true test of gratitude comes during hard times. Fifty-four years ago a man named H. Gordon Green published a story in The Reader’s Digest that reminds us that we can find things for which to be thankful even when the larder is bare [“The Thanksgiving I Don’t Forget,” Reader’s Digest, Nov. 1956, 69–71].
Mr. Green grew up on a farm in Canada. As you know, even in the best of times, farming can be a difficult way to make a living. For children of farmers, especially in years gone by, many of the leisure activities enjoyed by other children must be put off so that daily chores can be completed. Mr. Green was aware of things he was missing, but his father taught him to understand the importance of work and of family. For farm families, harvest time is all-consuming. After the harvest is in, however, it is generally a time of great joy and celebration — truly a time for giving thanks. In Mr. Green’s home, his father celebrated Thanksgiving by taking inventory of all the family had and sharing this information with his family. He wanted them to know that, despite any circumstance in which they found themselves, they always had something for which to be grateful.
On Thanksgiving morning, the elder Mr. Green would lead his family into to the cellar and together they would count the treasured bounty found there — barrels filled with apples, bins full of beets, bunches of carrots buried in cool sand, and sacks of potatoes bunkered against the cellar walls. Also found in the cellar were the bottled goods carefully preserved by Mrs. Green — peas, corn, string beans, jellies, strawberries, and other preserves. Everything was carefully counted. The elder Mr. Green would then march the family out to the barn to calculate how much hay and grain the family had to help them make it through the next year. The animals were all counted — the cows, the pigs, and the fowl (chickens, turkeys, and geese). All of the things that had been accumulated through hard work were now there to be appreciated. When finally the family settled down to its Thanksgiving dinner, they had a much greater appreciation for the things about which they offered thanks.
Among the Thanksgivings filled with plenty, however, was not the one that Gordon Green remembered as the most unforgettable. That Thanksgiving Day was celebrated during a year when there seemed little to be thankful for. According to Mr. Green, the year started off like many other years. They had a store of hay, sufficient seeds, and four litters of pigs. Mr. Green’s father even had a little money set aside to buy a hay loader. He really wanted that loader. It would save him hours of backbreaking work. Another technology, however, intruded into his plans. That year electricity was made available in the area. The Green home didn’t have electricity. Wiring the house and buying fixtures was an expense that the family couldn’t afford — unless the hay loader wasn’t purchased.
What changed the elder Green’s plans was watching his wife struggle with the daily wash using her old wash tub and washboard. He said, “You spend more time doing the wash than sleeping. Do you think we should break down and get electricity?” The hay loader was put on hold and family wired up as soon as the electrical line was strung along their street. Along with electricity came light fixtures that dangled from the ceiling of every room and a magical washing machine. Gone were the oil lamps and the task of filling them with oil, trimming their wicks, and cleaning the soot they left behind. They were banished to the attic.
According to Mr. Green, electricity was about the last good thing that happened to the family that year. Severe weather, mostly in the form of rain, wiped out their crops. They replanted only to see more rain destroy the new plants. Even their potatoes rotted in the mud. The family had to start selling livestock to make ends meet — but so did everybody else. As a result they received little in return for their precious animals. Mr. Green reported that all the family was able to harvest that year was a patch of turnips. That was the state of the family affairs when Thanksgiving Day arrived. Mrs. Green said, “Maybe we’d better forget it this year. We haven’t even got a goose left.” Her husband, however, never considered cancelling the family’s Thanksgiving plans. He probably would have agreed with Henry Ward Beecher, who wrote, “The unthankful heart … discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings!”
That Thanksgiving morning, the elder Mr. Green awoke earlier than usual and went looking for the Thanksgiving feast. Except for some turnips that had managed to survive the storms, the cellar and barn were bare. He managed to shoot a jackrabbit and requested that his wife cook it. Mrs. Green, still feeling the pangs associated with a difficult year, reluctantly took the rabbit but indicated that it would take hours to make that tough bit of meat palatable. Along with the rabbit, she prepared some of the turnips. When the meal was finally placed before the children, they refused to eat. That was the last straw. Mrs. Green began weeping.
That’s when Mr. Green decided that it was time to remind his family that, despite the hardships of the year, that they had things for which they should be grateful. He journeyed to the attic and recovered one of the old oil lamps. Returning to the table, he asked the children to turn off all of the lights in the house as he lit the old lamp. The children marveled at how dark the room was despite the light being cast from the oil lamp. They could hardly believe that they had spent so many years living by that dim light. Arlo Guthrie wrote, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” The elder Mr. Green saw a darkness creeping into the hearts of his family, and he stuck the light gratitude into that void.
The family’s new gratitude brought with it a new attitude. The family gave thanks for the jackrabbit and the turnips, and this time everyone ate. Following dinner, the family sat quietly in the light of the lamp. Mr. Green wrote:
“In the humble dimness of the old lamp we were beginning to see clearly again. … It [was] a lovely meal. The jack rabbit tasted like turkey and the turnips were the mildest we could recall. … [Our] home, … for all its want, was so rich [to] us.'”
Whether this Thanksgiving Day finds you with abundance or scarcity, I hope you take time to reflect on something about which you are thankful. As J. Robert Moskin wrote, “Thanksgiving comes to us out of the prehistoric dimness, universal to all ages and all faiths. At whatever straws we must grasp, there is always a time for gratitude and new beginnings.”