Tiny baby trees planted in 1957, when we moved in, are now thick, towering giants outside a little brown three-bedroom clapboard house at 5311 Indiana Avenue in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a small Midwestern town where you knew all your neighbors’ business, where people brought you hot pie and homemade ice cream and would drop in unexpectedly for a Sunday visit.
Raising a Mountain Lion
We raised chickens in the two-car garage of that little house, once raised an orphaned mountain lion, and gave a home to a beautiful collie and a little black Lab named Pepper. The garage was where I painted my first car, a 1947 Chevy, and we conducted science experiments there with our kit of chemicals (which was dangerous then and would be illegal today). At that house we climbed up the old pull-down ladder to hang out in the attic, with an extension cord up the stairs to power my mom’s old RCA record player. I’d sit up there for hours pretending to be a radio DJ. (I’m kind of hoping now there was no asbestos around.)
At this little house, my brothers and I blew up mom’s flower beds with firecrackers and a remote control while Mom had a group of women over for coffee.
We held muscular dystrophy fundraising carnivals in the little square backyard, playing games and selling hot dogs. My brother Dennis and his friend crashed one of the carnivals in a raid, squirting all the kids with mustard and ketchup.
My Time Capsule
I planted a time capsule in that little yard over 50 years ago. I got the idea at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and came home to gather all the cool things I had from that year. I buried it in the flower beds by the back fence. (I apologize to whoever lives there if someone shows up with a metal detector. I promise there isn’t that much gold in it.) What would be in your time capsule?
The little house was modern for its time and was a model home for the new neighborhood, “Woodhurst,” made by a progressive local builder. The house had a see-through two-way fireplace between the living and family rooms, a modern kitchen, and pigskin leather floor tiles, which were great for sliding in our socks like Tom Cruise in Risky Business.
Learning Art and Travel
The hallway to the three bedrooms had a hand-painted mural of a harbor scene, with old high-masted ships with brown sails — probably a painting of someplace like Italy. That mural may be why I fell in love with painting. A bookshelf underneath was where we kept the Collier’s Encyclopedia and shelves of National Geographic magazines, and I’d spend hours sitting on the floor reading and dreaming of someday traveling the world.
Cover Your Ears
We had a Hammond B3 organ in the living room, where I’d play horrific loud funeral music to annoy my parents so they would sell it and buy a piano, which I desperately wanted to learn. This may have been the first of many passive-aggressive traits I developed.
We made silent movies in that living room, with its modern ’50s gold couch and my dad’s chair, beside which he kept his “hi-fi.” I shot the first movie with my first Kodak movie camera, and in it my older brother wore a smoking jacket and smoked a pipe. My parents were mortified. That was my first failed attempt at becoming a media mogul.
Of course there are memories of Christmas, when I got my first painting easel, my first record (“Get Off of My Cloud” by the Stones), my first album (Help by the Beatles), and my gold Schwinn bicycle.
Art on TV
The family room had a little black-and-white TV where we would watch Bonanza on Sunday nights before bed, and I’d watch Jon Gnagy and Norman Rockwell on The Famous Artist School TV programs teaching us to paint. We watched Bozo, The Monkees, and Dark Shadows after school. It’s the place we saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and where we watched endless days of Walter Cronkite coverage when Kennedy was shot.
My Crazy Neighbor Lady
We had a basketball hoop on the garage, and a cranky neighbor lady who used to take naps during the day would call my mom and complain that we were playing basketball at 3 in the afternoon after school. She called every day of my childhood, and she would still be calling if we hadn’t moved. There simply was no safe time to play ball because it seemed like she was always sleeping, and her bedroom was right beside the driveway with the basketball hoop. Like typical troublemaking boys, my neighbor Stu and I would sneak out whenever possible and bounce the ball just to see how long it would take the phone to ring. (Of course, in Indiana, the basketball is the state bird.)
We moved into that house when I was about 3, and I consider it my childhood home. I cherish the wonderful childhood my parents created for my brothers and me.
And this little house is where we would have Thanksgiving every year.
We usually had a pretty normal 1960s Norman Rockwell kind of Thanksgiving. But one year during dinner, I piled my plate high with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes with a lake of gravy, ham with pineapple, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows, green beans in mushroom soup with fried onions on top, a side of cranberry sauce, and two kinds of pie … pumpkin and cherry (my all-time favorite). Then I stood up, yelled something at my family, cousins, aunts, uncles, and all … and I slammed that full plate of food on the floor. Then I ran off crying.
Glass shattered and scattered, faster than a flock of goats being chased by a wolf. Food was spread over a 10-mile radius around the tiny dining room filled with card tables and “kids’ tables.” Food was on the walls, gravy was dripping down the the sliding glass door beside the table, and the cream-colored curtains were now decorated with red cranberries, cherry pie, and sweet potatoes. Funniest of all, marshmallow was dripping from my grandfather’s glasses and splatters were on the faces of pretty much everyone.
I honestly can’t remember why I did it, but I remember my aunt muttering something like, “Your kids are spoiled and something needs to be done about it right this minute.”
The fact was, I had a horrific temper as a kid. That is, until the day I slammed my ukulele into the door of my room and broke it into matchsticks. When my parents refused to buy me another, I realized rapidly that it was time to grow up and stop destroying my own stuff.
Little Apple Turkeys
I loved Thanksgiving because I got to help my mom. I’d put out decorations like little apples made into turkeys with a fan on the back, little legs, and gobbler head on the front. I’d make a horn of plenty, flowing out with colorful gourds, and I’d always open the family Bible and light a candle by it.
Seeing cousins was always a treat, and we would get sent outside to play in the snow, build snow forts, and have snowball fights — until someone ran into the house crying after an ice ball to the forehead.
And almost every Thanksgiving, someone would say something that made someone else mad. Someone would go storming off angry or hurt, doors might slam, tears might fall, and people would silently stare into the eyes of others in discomfort, with that “What just happened?” kind of look.
Like all families, we had moments when we felt like we needed some space, some separation, or wished that someone hadn’t said something that got everyone into a tizzy.
Not So Perfect After All
If you and I had been present at the perfect American Thanksgiving Norman Rockwell painted in that masterpiece, we too would have watched the perfect moment pass, only to find plates of food flying, tears, angry moments, arguments, moments of insane laughter, great joy, and all the moments we can look back on and cherish or regret.
This, my friend, is family, and it is a golden gift.
You may have conflicts, you may have tough moments, someone may drink too much or say the wrong thing. But family is made up of real moments, of an environment so safe you can say what needs to be said, be who you are, and still be embraced.
No Perfection Required
You were not placed in a family for a Norman Rockwell-perfect Thanksgiving, you were placed there, in your family, for a specific purpose. The words that come from our mouths may cut or comfort, but each has a purpose, and everyone who utters their opinion about a politician or a social issue deeply cares about that issue. You may disagree just as deeply. But please realize each has reasons they formed their beliefs.
You can argue, you can disagree, you can get ugly or inappropriate, but before doing any of those things, know deeply that you have history with and love for the people surrounding you today.
Embrace the Reason You Came
You travel across town or across the world to be there, then leave wondering why you came home. I get it, but you came for a reason, and that’s because being with family is a great gift. And though you may have less-than-perfect moments, just remember that life growing up was also filled with conflicts, discussions, arguments, differing opinions, and joy-filled moments as well.
Trust that the people you are there with today are the people you admire and love. You don’t have to agree with them, nor do they need to agree with you. But each deserves your love, your respect, and for you to at least listen and try to see their viewpoint.
Or, as my dad likes to say, “Let it go in one ear and out the other.” Translation: Listen, but don’t let it get you riled up.
Our world is filled with uncivil discourse. Friends start to hate friends because they don’t agree on political or social issues. But family is special. Don’t let it destroy family. Don’t let disagreement disrupt family time. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and life would be dull if everyone agreed about everything.
Make a truce. Agree to disagree and don’t bring it up. Find a way to rekindle old memories, and try to embrace the tradition of Thanksgiving and the meaning of gratitude.
Enjoying the Moment
Be grateful for those you love, those who share your table, and embrace their presence. Play a game, sing some songs, watch the game, but be there for one another, because you went to a lot of effort to be together. And be present. Let’s not make the Rockwell Thanksgiving into one where everyone is looking at their phones and not talking.
The Last Thanksgiving
There are people at your Thanksgiving table today who may not ever be there again. Fill the table with joy, with love, with laughter, with memories, and with respect. It will make it the best Thanksgiving ever, and then you can look back and this will be a day you’ll remember fondly forever. This is a day for love, for healing, for old and new memories. Be thankful.
PS: Depending on when you read this, you may still have time to make a difference to someone who is alone for Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s serving in a homeless shelter, or taking a plate of food to someone on the streets, or maybe it’s inviting friends with no family, or people you work with.
I’m grateful for the gift you’ve given me, and I give thanks for you. You inspire me to share my thoughts, my stories, and my memories with thousands and thousands of people. You’ve graciously invited me to your home each Sunday morning, and you’ve been good enough to share your thoughts and memories with me.
And to my artist friends, for those who don’t want to watch the big game, it’s a good time to see if anyone wants to learn painting or sculpting. Could be fun. Or maybe you just make a craft together. Life is all about creating memories. For those of you with no artist around to help, you could try my free lessons online. The family that paints together cleans up together.
If you feel like it, I’d love you to read this out loud and share Sunday Coffee with others. I can always use a new friend (I can’t get enough). They can subscribe at www.coffeewitheric.com.
For kicks, I’ve prepared a few questions to start a table discussion at your house. Here’s wishing you luck.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
What is the one thing you never wanted Mom and Dad to know that you feel comfortable talking about now?
What family member had the most impact on your life, and why?
Which family members contributed to making who you are, and what did they do that helped mold you?
Who do you really miss, and why?
What is your most fond family memory from when you were growing up?
What was the one question you never asked your parents but you’ve been dying to know?
What are you really grateful for?
What’s the one thing you want to do with the rest of your life that everyone at the table might not know?
What are some of the things you want to check off your bucket list?
What’s the best book you ever read and the best movie you ever saw, and why?
Do you remember a time when you laughed uncontrollably? What was happening?
What are your memories about Thanksgiving?
Happy Thanksgiving. May you be richly blessed this year.