“The art of thanksgiving is thanksliving. It is gratitude in action. It is applying Albert Schwietzer’s philosophy: “In gratitude for your own good fortune, you must render in return some sacrifice of your life for other life.” – Wilferd A. Peterson, The Art of Thanksgiving
This year on Thanksgiving, as family and friends gather around our dining table, we’ll continue a tradition started two years ago, even if we never actually finished it when we started it. I’ll explain. Early in the meal, after the antipasto — our only Italian contribution to the otherwise American meal — and before the turkey, green bean casserole and other classic dishes, we will read Wilferd A. Peterson’s essay, “The Art of Thanksgiving.” It comes from an anthology of Peterson’s essays on the art of a number of things — travelling, laughter, thinking, friendship, leadership, etc. — that were originally published in This Week Magazine in the late 50s and early 60s. The Art of Living includes an introduction by This Week Magazine editor and publisher William I. Nichols that notes that the magazine, and Peterson’s essays, regularly reached 14 million families each week. “Never has a feature drawn such warm and instant response,” writes Nichols. It’s not surprising. The essays are an instant source of wisdom and inspiration. They certainly inspired me two years ago, 55 years after they were published, when I decided to take my thrift store copy off the shelf to use like an invocation before the Thanksgiving meal.
We had a full house that holiday. With the table leaf installed, some guests were practically in the living room, while other were stuck at the corners. Everything was as I liked it. I stood up to begin the reading.
“The art of thanksgiving is thanksliving,” I declared. “It is gratitude in action.” I looked up to gauge the attention of the audience. My mother, at the other end of the table, had her head on her plate. She was passed out. “Uh, Joe,” my friend Robert said, who was seated next to her. There were gasps. My first frightening thought was that my mother had died right there at the table. On Thanksgiving. But I put the book down and with Robert’s help quickly revived her and got her to the couch while someone else dialed 911.
Once the initial shock wore off, I wasn’t entirely worried. My mother and I had been sparring for the last week or so about her taking her medication, and I was certain that making her take her medication that morning when I brought her to my house, coupled with the late start of the meal (we always start eating two hours after we say we’re going to) was a bad combination.
The first responders were from our local fire house. They checked her vitals and recommended she be taken to the hospital. I followed in the car. Thanksgiving continued without me; my wife now managing the hosting duties on her own. I’m told someone continued reading “The Art of Thanksgiving” after I left, but I don’t believe it. I can’t imagine anyone waiting any longer to eat.
My mother was fine, but still wound up staying in the hospital through the entire holiday weekend. When I called her senior facility to tell them she was in the hospital, they informed me that they wouldn’t accept her release back to the facility unless she had a psychological evaluation. She had been acting out lately, they said, lashing out at staff and other residents and making false accusations. It seemed she hadn’t been taking her medication for longer than I realized. This also explained why when my wife, Keri, told her to take meds she said, “YOU take the pills, you ugly fuck.”
We were in a bind. I knew with the holiday weekend, it might be awhile before we could get the evaluation, but I also knew that my mother was very good at manipulating these kinds of situations. She’d likely pass the evaluation, be released, but continue to refuse to take her medication. The situation would get worse. At least I knew that in the hospital, if administered by a doctor, she’d agree to the take the meds. At some point, though, she was going to have to be discharged. What then?
I thought of Wilferd A. Peterson and “The Art of Thanksgiving.”
No, I didn’t. That wouldn’t make any sense. If you recall, I never actually finished it. My mother passed out after the second sentence. But if I did think of him, this would have been the ideal part of this essay to mention it.
I didn’t think of anything, really, except getting my mother out of the hospital and back on her medication. And maybe if my pumpkin pie had turned out alright. No one had mentioned it to me.
By Monday, after enlisting the support of the hospital doctors and nurses, my mother’s psychologist and the head nurse at the senior facility, my mother was released. She would no longer have any control over her own medication. It would be administered to her, regardless of her displeasure at having a nurse knock on her door every morning. It was the only way they’d agree to have her back. And the only way I could be certain she was getting the treatment she needed. She’d also have to agree to not lash out at anyone anymore. I knew with dementia and a mood disorder, her word was not her bond, but it was worth a shot. The pumpkin pie turned out alright, too, so I made another one so my mother could enjoy it the following weekend.
By the summer of 2017, a bit more than six months after the Thanksgiving event, and more than ten years of living with me in Nashville, my sister and I arranged to move my mother back to New Jersey to a facility better suited to her needs.That next Thanksgiving, I read through all of “The Art of Thanksgiving” without incident. We considered reenacting the scene from the previous year, with someone playing the role of my mother and others playing the firemen, just to make it interesting. We imagined that the event would eventually become a bit of weird folklore in our family, and that years from now, after my wife and I are long gone, our daughters would host these crazy Thanksgiving dinners with their families and friends that involved elaborate play acting and fire fighter costumes. The story, of course, would become more ridiculous and fantastical over time, until no one remembered what it represented anymore. All that would be left is laughter.
Wilferd A. Peterson’s essay, “The Art of Laughter,” would be the perfect accompaniment. “Meet the challenge of life with the art of laughter,” he wrote.