My first Thanksgiving was on a Christmas tree farm in Virginia, owned by State Department friends of my career diplomat parents. I was 10, a student at a small private school in Washington, and all I knew about this holiday was that there was a big parade going on in New York City and I wanted to go there.
How did I know about the parade? From the black and white DuMont my father had purchased and presented to the family with a flourish. The Pilgrim and Indian story couldn’t hold a candle to what I was learning about American life and culture from my favorite shows. I had even swapped out the British accent so lately acquired at boarding school in the UK, for my version of an American TV personality.
Thanksgiving on a Christmas tree farm hadn’t sounded nearly as exciting as a parade, but that all changed as soon as we were greeted by our hosts, Jerry and Ruth, and their two daughters, Rachel, 11 and Sarah, 9, who immediately introduced me to a litter of kittens. Instant bonding. Perhaps my father had met Jerry because he was assigned to the Burma desk, and this was his way of making three Burmese newcomers to the country feel welcome. I didn’t know it then, but I was hungry for just such a family, informal, warm and funny, a sharp contrast to my own reserved parents, in fact, to every adult I had thus far encountered.
About the Thanksgiving menu, I already had an idea — from TV, of course — and I wasn’t disappointed. Well, perhaps a little. Where was the moulded Jello salad with the suspended bits of fruit cocktail? While the ‘ladies’, Ruth and Mum (as she was still called), saw to the turkey, slowly turning a deep golden brown, and the pies cooled on window sills, the plan was for the men and children to take a walk on their property and select a Christmas tree to be felled and delivered to us two weeks hence, in time for Christmas. Dad and I had underestimated the chilly temperatures and wet ground, but soon, in borrowed hats, scarves, gloves and duck shoes, we were off for a long ramble.
It seemed that the family had returned from a posting to Turkey — hence the camel saddle and embossed metal trays — and before long, had purchased this Christmas tree farm with a derelict house on it. Apparently unfazed, they moved into the house, made do for a few months, and began to build a new house next to it. Their future home was a single-story structure with a big open space for the kitchen, dining area and living room, and a central fireplace, the ‘great room’ before its time. The bedrooms had been studded out, but it was still essentially a weather-proofed, wide-open playground. They were merrily camping out, in, while Jerry and Ruth finished up the interior walls and fittings as time permitted. It was impossible to imagine them in cocktail attire or making the diplomatic rounds as my parents did most evenings — “Receiving line, one drink, slip out a side door…”
A wood fire was blazing in the fireplace. A plank of plywood and pair of saw horses had been turned into a table. Though unfinished, the kitchen was operational, and the entire space will filled with delicious smells and classical music. I loved how the smoke clung to my clothes and hair for hours after we left. I hadn’t been so relaxed or laughed so much in months.
As far as I know, no one at this gathering gave a second thought to a family from Buddhist Burma celebrating Christmas — my father was nominally Church of England, while my mother and I were Roman Catholic — any more than this American family of cultural, if not observant, Jews, would take on a side gig as proprietors of a Christmas tree farm. I was relieved not to have to explain my appearance, my background, my existence, for once.
And it might have well have been that Thanksgiving Day, holding a new kitten in my lap, tramping through the woods with my new-found friends, making decorations from the pinecones and evergreens we collected, that I fell in love with America. I like to think that, despite the revolving door at the top, the State Department is still populated by people like our friends, willing to serve in sometimes dangerous conditions, at the whim of the top dogs, presenting a friendly face of America to the rest of the world. This Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for that.
I dedicate this poem to the memory of my first American Thanksgiving.
The last piece of pie
Has all the generosity of the first,
All that has gone into its making
By its maker. It wants for nothing,
No embellishments, no frill of whipped
Cream, no scroll of ice-cream can
Improve what is simply a piece
Of what was a whole, yet is wholly
Complete in itself. Taste it
And tell me that is not so.