A State of Thanksgiving

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. Raspberry-Jello-Salad-1

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.

 

Protect and Serve

At my desk this morning, my first act was to post to Facebook, a black and white photo of my spouse in the uniform of the US Navy, being saluted by his 3-year-old nephew. Though the world I most long for has eliminated the need for armed forces (cheers, Costa Rica!), I am proud of his service to our country, and grateful that he had the good fortune of serving between conflicts. I wish he’d kept those sharp uniforms, too!

Earlier, while still in my pajamas, I finished reading a book my friend, Laura, recommended a few weeks ago — one I heartily recommend to everyone: Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. The book has been lumped together with other political bestsellers du jour, and it is certainly a sharp critique of the current administration. But its main message struck another chord: how well our government (in the capital G sense I wrote about previously) has functioned over time, regardless of the party in power. More importantly, the book lays out a portfolio of imminent risks, now that the true interests and intention of the incumbents have become clear, that is, close to zero in performing their sworn duty to protect and serve the United States and its citizens. Until recently, we have had the government to thank for focusing on activities like: “How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon or if North Korean missiles can reach Kansas City.” No drama, no optics necessary or demanded.

service

(Photo: Mike Wilson, @mkwlsn)

Lewis, whose other bestsellers include The Big Short, The Blind Side and Moneyball (to mention three that were made into films) is a master storyteller, and if you have been following this blog, I can safely say you will be captivated, possibly even motivated to become more politically involved, by this latest book.  At the very least, perhaps you’ll come to understand as I did that “Roughly half the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal.” We have as much to fear from accidents as from terrorism, it seems. And there’s the NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — yes, I had to look it up — $5 billion or 60% of the Department of Commerce’s budget and the largest data-gathering agency in the world. Without it, writes Lewis, “… no plane would fly, no bridge would be built, and no war would be fought — at least not well.” In other words, cabinet appointments filled with cronies and loyalists who lack the education, experience, understanding, or even interest in their missions as anything but an opportunity for self-enrichment, is a recipe for looming disaster on an epic scale.

If Veterans Day makes you think of our military heroes — and it should — we might also want to celebrate those unsung heroes toiling away in inner offices, who have done more to protect all Americans than the people we commonly think of as our leaders. I am talking about career civil servants (toward whom I admittedly have a bias) who are mission-  as opposed to money-driven. A few who stand out for me in this collection of extraordinary, dedicated and smart people: former Deputy Energy Secretary, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall who led the U.S. mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria; former NOAA chief, Kathy Sullivan, who grasped the human element in disaster preparedness; former head of Rural Development (USDA), Lillian Salerno, responsible for the $220 billion bank “that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America.” Yes, those voters.

The Fifth Risk has been called ‘a love-letter to federal workers,” and why they deserve praise instead of the blame usually piled on when something goes awry. Why they deserve a raise and respect. And why we need to vote in people who understand what has always made this country exceptional. Read it at the risk of becoming better informed and more appreciative of what it really means to protect and serve.