Twas' the day after Thanksgiving: reflections on what it means to be an American . . .
A few days before Thanksgiving, I took a train from San Francisco to the suburb of Pleasanton. It was one of those mornings that signal Thanksgiving is near—a cloudless sky, temperatures bracing enough to warrant diving into the coat closet to locate a scarf and gloves, and the sight of fallen leaves swirling in a neighborhood park as I walked to the Bart station. A billboard loomed above me, advertising a turkey dinner for only $39.99 at Marie Callender's.
I love the week leading up to Thanksgiving because of the anticipation of my family coming together again. I love the reminders on T.V., on radio, and on social media to be grateful for what you have and hold because it allows me a moment to close my eyes and thank the Universe that my house echoes with laughter and joy again.
However, this year as my family gathered around the Thanksgiving table our mood was somber. In what has become an eagerly awaited tradition, every sibling, every aunt, every uncle, every parent, every grandma, every kid articulates what “I’m thankful for this year." We sat down to dinner, the room full of the smell of curry and cinnamon pumpkin and around the big oak table we went, each taking turns to remember the year’s blessing.
“We are all blessed to have a home and a warm bed tonight, our families together, “ began my brother, clearing his throat. “Let us remember the people in Paradise, who lost their homes and their loved ones,” he continued gravely.
We looked at each other and put down our forks, heaviness cloaking our table. My stomach lurched. My head was queasy with the dramatic images we’d seen on the news; firefighters wearing from head to toe, bright yellow suits with spacesuit-like hoods and blackened visors, the flames leaping high that killed at least 86 people, leveled some 13,000 homes and charred more than 150,000 bucolic acres. On Thursday, as many as 536 people were still missing in Butte County, the Sheriff said in a news brief on Wednesday (via CNBC.) Now rains are coming, and possible mudslides.
Many residents affected by the fires that have become the deadliest in California’s history say the only silver lining is the extraordinary human kindness flooding in from neighboring cities and around the world. Clothing. Money. Food.
Thousands more wanted to help. They couldn’t replace what the fire victims had lost, but they could help serve at Thanksgiving Together, an ambitious project spearheaded by chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen that aimed to serve upwards of 15,000 meals to those displaced by the fire. When a sign-in sheet went up for hundreds of volunteers, 75 percent of the slots were filled in a day.
Americans may seem divided these days on many matters of politics and culture. But they don’t seem at odds when it comes to helping their fellow citizens.
In the two weeks since the Camp Fire started, so many clothing donations have poured in that relief coordinators are asking only for cash and gift cards to help the displaced get an extra pair of shoes or new slacks.
Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who made a surprise visit to firefighters battling the ongoing Camp Fire in California on Wednesday had this to tweet, “Today In Paradise, I saw devastation & I met people who have lost everything. But I also saw the spirit of America. I saw firefighters working 24 hours shifts & I saw volunteers serving food and helping in every way. This Thanksgiving, I thank them for showing what makes us great.”
The dog rises from the floor and stretches, sniffing the air for the fresh sweet scent of turkey. “My cranberry sauce is running into the turkey,’ complains my seven year-old nephew, looking extremely annoyed as he gazes at his plate. We break out into spontaneous laughter. “Let’s raise a glass to the human spirit,” I say to the family gathered around the table, winking at my nephew in approval, “it has an amazing ability to show up when it’s needed.”