The Thanksgiving That Never Was
Norman Rockwell’s Myth for America
Have you seen this painting?
Created by Norman Rockwell, it is one of a quartet created in celebration of FDR’s 1941 address to Congress concerning human rights and the “Four Freedoms” of every person: freedom of speech and expression, of religion, freedom from fear, and finally this one: “Freedom From Want.”
Each of these four paintings still exists, all hanging in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but it is the final work, the one above, that people have gravitated to most heavily and know most widely. It is to this day the iconic image of an all-American thanksgiving and the epitome of what a holiday should be. Driving to work this week I heard an author on NPR decry ham for Thanksgiving as an abomination; bleu cheese mashed potatoes, deconstructed traditional fare and non-pie desserts as abhorrent heresies. His distaste morphed conveniently into support of the book he had recently published about the perfect way to cook traditional Thanksgiving fare, but was supported in spirit by the idea that this Rockwell painting is the paragon American celebration of a most American holiday.
On a whole, I think that society agrees; over the years I’ve seen this image of the radiant nuclear family more times than I can count. Last year it was even featured in an episode of Modern Family. Yet in that moment the rub occurs: because there is no room at Rockwell’s table for a gay couple with an adopted daughter. There is no room for a Columbian immigrant, split-up parents, sibling rivalry, or strife of any kind. There is no room for: arguing, alcoholism, abuse, hurt feelings, stepped-on toes, crushed dreams, broken hearts, or that strange too-small feeling that comes from taking your soul to a home from the past. There is no room at Rockwell’s table for a family’s like my friends’. And there is no room at Rockwell’s table for a family like mine.
I think it’s time that we quit lying to ourselves, saying this scene is possible, probable, or even enviable: that we should want to surround our tables with washed white faces, a proud gnarled patriarch watching his subservient, domesticated wife slowly lower a seemingly-weightless turkey to the table. That we should want to eradicate diversity, acceptance, and reality from our vision of America and paper over the painful truths of life with a lily-white lie that falls apart as soon as it’s soaked in wine. We should do this not just because I find this segregated, angelic vision of Rockwell distasteful, but because I believe these icons chafe our souls to contempt. Whether we will admit it or not. On some level we will all pause this Thanksgiving and quickly hide the resentment that rises for our families in a flash for not being this way: for not conjuring the idyllic dream unachievable that we were told to want. For being a broken home of broken people, divorced, too drunk, too serious, cloying, bitter, smothering, fussy, and altogether anything but a pretty collection of paint on canvas. And many a bottle of wine will be opened to make all of this more bearable, and in every car the moments leaving the house will be full of whispered comments, held-in aggression, and most of all thanks that the whole thing is over.
So I take you back to Rockwell. The image is a farce, the painting a forgery of a dinner that never really happened. So knowing that, what do we do with this broken holiday—one built on a history of displacement, greed, and deadly ambition? We begin with honesty, and we start to fix it. We bring back reality, put our own families around the table and celebrate Thanksgiving for what it really is: a moment of gratitude in an all-too-imperfect world, for whatever it has come to means to us with whatever meal we want, whomever we like, and wherever we please.
I’m writing this from the mountains in Colorado—Heeney, to be exact—nestled in the scrubby brown breast of the mountains. Today is Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for my family, whether I speak to them or not. I am thankful for my friends who have taken me in. I am thankful that I am not so coarse as to ignore that people not free from want today. And I am thankful that today we are in no way Norman Rockwell’s vision of Thanksgiving, but so much better. And I pray for the day when we can finally tear down the last shreds of this vision of antiquated America for a day where all races, creeds, religions, orientations, abilities, ages, intelligences and socioeconomic statuses are welcome at the table, accepted in light of their flaws, and invited to heap their plate with whatever damn main dish they please.