Thanksgiving Empty Chairs

Synopsis:   On Thanksgiving Day, many chairs at the table will be empty of the physical body, but full of the spirit of those who lost their lives on September 11.   But what about the countless millions of children who have no parents, or whose mother or father doesn't show up to celebrate Thanksgiving?   In this touching but telling story, GMa Lori shares with Matt and Sarah the meaning of Thanksgiving, and calls upon the Parents Of Vigilance to fill the empty chairs of those who are gone, or those who are still here but who have forgotten to remember their children

                                SOPHIA - 7


A Thanksgiving story by
G-Ma Lori

        “Matt, Matt, Matt, could you stop talking for just a teeny-tiny bit to let me ask you what was exciting or interesting at school today?”
           I spoke rapidly and loudly, jockeying for position against the high-pitched resonance of my five-year-old grandson’s one-sided conversation as we walked home from his school.  He was ‘on a roll’ today. Even his usually vociferous three-year-old sister, Sarah, couldn’t get a word in.

      “Ummm…well, we worked on math and Ms. McMahon says I’m very good doing it, and…we had music today…and…um…uh…we talked about the Indian Harvest.” He skipped along beside me, constantly pulling on my arm as he expounded on his version of the First Thanksgiving.

      “Did the Indians and the Pilgrims eat at the same table?” I asked, curious to hear how he had understood his Kindergarten teacher explain the historical event.

      “Well, G-Ma, I don’t know that, but I know they had lots to eat…the Pilgrims did…and they were friends with the Indians…so they had them come and help eat it all.  And, you know, G-Ma, it’s called Harvest Time because all the crops…like the corn and stuff…are grown and ready to be picked. That’s called harvesting.” He carefully enunciated the word so I would understand.    

 Sarah charged into the conversation as Matt took a breath. “We had a Winnie the Pooh story about the Harvest, G-Ma; ‘member, Matt?  Piglet, Tigger, Christopher Robin, Owl, Eeyore, and…” Sarah took a big breath as she hurried to finish before Matt launched on another expository…”and Kanga and baby Roo ate lots of food.  Did they eat the same dinner as the Indians, G-Ma?”

      “No, my sweet one, the dinner Matt is telling us about happened over 400 years ago. It was a very special dinner given by the Pilgrims who were celebrating their freedom. They sailed to America in 1620 on the ship, the Mayflower, and landed at Plymouth, Mass.  They wanted to make a new home in America, so they worked very hard, planted many crops, and ate a big feast to celebrate.”

     Matt’s little chest puffed as he started to talk to me as though he was the teacher and I was the student. “The Indians became their friends, G-Ma and so that must be why they were invited to the Harvest festival.  And the first Harvest festival was

the same as the First Thanksgiving, ‘cause they all said a prayer to thank the Great Spirit.”  Then he leaned forward as we walked and looked at Sarah,.  “The Great Spirit is the God of the Indians, Sarah”  “The Indians weren’t happy at first when the Pilgrims used their land, were they, G-Ma?”

      We dodged some people bustling down the block with grocery bags.   Sidewalks in New York reminded me of the freeways in Southern California at rush hour.  You couldn’t take your eyes off the “road” for fear of a collision.  I thought about all the times I had car pooled after school and picked up my daughter—Matt and Sarah’s mother—and chuckled as I was now “driving” my grandchildren down the “freeways” of the East Village.
    I continued with the answer to Matt, and, of course, glancing at Sarah who was a little sponge soaking up all the information.
          “No, it took some time to make peace. The Indians were from the Patuxet Tribe of the Wampanonag Nation.  The Indians called the place where the Pilgrims landed, Patuxet, which meant ‘little falls. Thanksgiving, means just that, Sarah and Matt; giving thanks, and that’s what the Pilgrims and hopefully, the Indians did.  They all got together and were thankful for their plentiful harvest and their families and friends.  The day became a Tradition and we celebrate it every year.”  I had grown up in Montana, in a very small town, East Helena, and history stuck with me.  It was paying off now as the ancient memories found their way to my lips.

      Conversation waned as we scrambled to get home avoiding all the other busy East Village New Yorkers trying to do the same. When we arrived at their apartment, Matt showed me how to make a turkey by outlining my hand with a crayon.  We all made one and colored in our “hand turkeys.”

      “G-Ma, will Thanksgiving be different this year from other times.” The fun was interrupted as Matt transformed to  “Mr. Serious”. He moved closer, a sign he was upset, perhaps slightly terrorized by some thought or feeling hidden deep inside his sensitive, innocent being.

      “You mean because of the families who will have an empty chair at their dinner table for a missing father, mother, uncle, aunt, or special friend because of the September 11 tragedy?  Is that what you mean, ‘little man’, I took his hand.  Sarah’s eyes widened as she attempted to understand what we were talking about.

      “Jason lost his special ‘Daddies’ in the building crash,” she ventured timidly unsure if her comment was appropriate.  “Jason had lots of firemen friends and they can’t be his friends any more, right G-Ma?”

        “Sadly enough, dear girl, you are right. I know he is extra sad right now and will miss them on Thanksgiving.  He usually gets to go to the firehouse for their ‘Harvest Dinner’.”

      Matt’s Voice was low.  “G-Ma, that really makes ME even sadder.  I heard Jason’s mommy say Jason needs a daddy, and that she can’t be his daddy…and she is trying all the time to find one for him…and the firemen were kind of like ‘daddies’ to him.  Now they are gone.”
           I knew Jason’s mother well.   She was struggling to raise her son properly, even though he had no “father”—at least one that talked to him, or called him, or gave him presents on his birthday.   She had become close friends with many firemen, working as a volunteer for various events, adopting them as her “brothers” and surrogate “fathers” for Jason.   We had gone to lots of events at the firehouses with Jason, and then September 11th had taken away so many of Jason’s “fathers,” and so many of his mother’s “brothers.”   Matt and Sarah knew more than most children about impact of the tragedy because of their friendship with Jason.

      I searched Matt's innocent and sensitive eyes, as clear and blue as the morning glow in the Big Sky of Montana, and wanted to reassure him his friend would be fine.  His sadness was his way of letting me know when he needed an extra special hug and lap spot.  I quickly and lovingly obliged.  His face was all scrunched up, nose pinched and his tears already had wet his cheeks.  At five he exhibited amazing compassion for others.

     “Matt, Matt, my most special boy, one moment you are a hungry Allosaurus, Destructasaurus and,” I paused, “…a sweet loving honey-bear the next.” 

                         Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood

      I recalled when he was three and playing at Tompkins Square Park.  A few boys were  were playing Power Rangers and “flying” to their ‘bases’. They invited Matt to play and wanted to know what Ranger he was and where was he going.   To their surprise, Matt announced he was Winnie the Pooh and he was headed to the ‘Hundred Acre Wood’. In contrast he has more than once raced to the rescue of his little sister (even though she probably didn’t need rescuing).  He’s most definitely not a wimp and has a beautiful soft heart inherited from his loving mom and dad.   I could feel his wounds as he thought about Jason.

     “Well, G-Ma, Will doesn’t have a Daddy either and he wants our Daddy Joe to be his Daddy. Can Daddy Joe be his Daddy, too, and be Jason’s too?” anxiously inquired Sarah.

      Matt spoke softly, measuring his words.  “I already told Will that Daddy Joe can be his Daddy…but he can’t live so far away…because Daddy Joe can’t visit him way up in Canada. And, Sarah…” He turned to his little sister as though he were correcting the errant student…”Jason goes to a different school now so that won’t work out.” Matt was perturbed since he knew Sarah’s solution was neither practical nor realistic.
       Will and Matt had been friends since birth.  They were just a few months apart in age.  Will had been adopted by a single mother an old friend of Sabra and Joe’s.  Will had lived in the East Village until last year when his adopted mother moved to Canada.

     “G-Ma, maybe the kids not having both a mommy and daddy could have some of the ‘Parents of Vigilance’ be mommies and daddies for them.”  He flashed his blue eyes up at me, searching for my approval.  “And since Will doesn’t live here and Jason isn’t close by, they can have a ‘vigilant parent’ come to Thanksgiving Dinner?”
        His eyes began to twinkle. It was as though he knew I would be pleased with his solution.  “Some of the Parents could come to dinner and sit where the missing mommy or daddy, or whoever would be.  Hey,” he started excitedly… “maybe the kids could even…on another day…go to the Zoo… the dinosaur museum…the playground…or wrestle (Matt and Will wrestled all the time since they had been babies)…and best of all…some could say nighttime prayers and tuck them into bed.  You know, stuff like that.”
      His eagerness and excitement as the ideas grew, caused him to slur some of his words and a light spray of ‘drool’ showered me.

     My mind began to whir.   I thought about the terror of a child being “fatherless” or “motherless.”   Earlier in the week I had looked up statistics on the subject just for my information.

     The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report signifying since 1995 the proportion of children living with a single parent had dropped by 8 percent; and a Child  Trends study reported that between 1997 and 1999 the proportion of children living in single-parent families dropped from 27 percent to 25 percent.  It seemed as if the situation was possibly getting better since for the very first time in two generations, the negative family disintegration trends that scholars thought unstoppable, had suddenly stopped getting worse. It might have meant that for the first time, we could begin to focus good old-fashioned American know-how on the more optimistic side  - that is, until our country’s September 11 tragedy skewed the statistics with the loss of mothers fathers, uncles, aunts, etc.

      I wished Matt were a little older.  It would have been interesting to talk to him about the philosophy of Thanksgiving -  like the similarity between this Thanksgiving versus the Pilgrims first Feast Of The Harvest. They sought freedom from religious persecution and the terrorism of their rights and independence.  Today, we were seeking freedom from the persecution from the Terrorists. The Pilgrims risked their lives to live in a better place. Thousands gave their lives at the World Trade Center in the fight for their freedom.   The parallels were synonymous.

       I decided it would be good to remember the firemen, police and emergency workers on Thanksgiving. The topic of the fateful day is bound to come up at or near the dinner table.  When we got together with family at Matt’s great uncle’s house, I decided we shouldn’t dwell on the sadness, but promote how we’ve all been drawn together.  The children should hear how grateful we are, how powerful we have become out of the rubble. I noticed a number of signs of optimism even though there is uncertainty in our future.  I had read there was an increase in the sale of engagement rings after September 11, a revival of religious beliefs, more families were reuniting, and, hopefully, there would be a large increase in the population nine months from mid-September – an increase in the birth rate providing a genuine testament of faith in our future.  Matt’s question snapped my attention back to the ‘little man’ sitting in my lap.

       “It’s a really good thing there are Parents of Vigilance, G-Ma.  Will there be enough of them to go around?”  Matt frown was replaced by a wide smile.

      “I think so, Matt.  Yes, the Parents of Vigilance can step in and act as a missing parent and be calming for kids who haven’t a mommy or a daddy.  We have to tell more people how they can become Parents of Vigilance so there will be enough ‘extra’ mommies and daddies.”

      Matt’s chest puffed out again.  “I helped G-Pa pass out his cards telling about Semper Vigilantes and the Parents.  Maybe some of those people will help the kids who don’t have mommies and daddies, or have only one. Sarah and I are giving thanks for our whole family and for the Parents of Vigilance too.” 
          Over the past few weeks I had watched big, ol’ G-Pa and Matt walking down the street passing out Vigilance Cards.  The card gives a short explanation of the Parents of Vigilance and the history of Semper Vigilantes. Matt fearlessly hands out the cards, as though somehow in his own, innocent way he understands the importance of a Parent of Vigilance in his life, and in his friends’ lives who are deprived of a “father figure.”   When he’s passing out the cards, I wonder if he wasn’t the true author of the Pledge Of Vigilance.  Certainly, he was a prime motivating force behind its construction.

       I was relieved my ‘little man’ was not upset anymore.  His sense of wanting happiness for his friends overshadowed his concern.  I only hoped that the other little ones would find a Parent Of Vigilance on Thanksgiving.


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