When I was growing up, we went around the Thanksgiving table and said what we were thankful for. My mother always started the challenge, and then she always confidently declared: "My family." Then she would look round the circle with a challenging eyebrow raised. All those who followed would also mutter "my family," because how could I follow up such a heavy response by saying I'm thankful for "my new leggings" or "my American Girl Dolls."
Still, I never really understood what it meant to be thankful for family.
Unlike new legging or an American Girl Doll, my family was never something that I asked for. It's not like I sat alone dreaming up one day: I want two Long-Island Jews for parents and a younger brother who is always smarter and more well adjusted than me. Rather, my family was the environment I lived in. It was more like a landscape I parachuted into, Survivor style. Sometimes warm and welcoming, sometimes harsh and stormy. But not something I could so much imagine changing. How can you change the weather? How can you be thankful for something for which you can imagine no alternative?
Now that I have a family of my own, I understand a bit more about what it means to be thankful.
I understand now that there are choices we make as adults that form our families. I chose who to marry, for example, and Dan and I chose I chose how many children to have and when to conceive them. We choose how to present the world to them. We choose which aspects of normative culture to interact with and which to ignore. We choose our attitude when we interact with our children, or at least we try.
On the other hand, there's a lot we don't really get to choose, if only because the scope of our choice is limited by our current understanding. If I had known when I married Dan (other than the fact that I loved him) that I would give up my affection for movies and shopping, that I would stop wearing makeup and permanently stop styling my hair, that I would rearrange my life to be where God heals people, that I would open my home to whoever who was poor or needy or emotionally distressed? The weight of the choice would have been too much for me. And because I value my current life, I'm glad there were things I didn't know ten years ago.
Similarly, I can choose to have sex at an opportune time, and I can choose to forgo tuna and alcohol for a while (or not), but I cannot choose the people my children turn out to be. This is obvious with the two I have now. They look like each other, and they each look a little bit like me, but they are 100% their own selves. I cannot separate Harvey into a menu of personality traits and say, "this is me and this is Dan and this is all that extended nursing I did." He is Harvey and Zion is Zion. They each parachuted down into my family, and though each time I held out my hands in eager expectation, it's not like I knew what I was getting.
For this reason, I understand what my mother meant when she said she was thankful for her family. Though I know nothing different from my family, though I don't know how they could possibly BE any different, I know that there lies in this unknowing a weight of wonderfulness that is so heavy, so overpowering, that I have no other choice but to turn my eyes to a higher power and mouth the word "thanks."
So for today and the celebrations that lie ahead, and for this next season and the great big questions marks it hangs over us, I can only think of the prayer that Maria the ill-fated nun offers at the beginning of The Sound of Music. "For what we are about to receive," she asks, "may the Good Lord makes us truly thankful."