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Domestic Bliss

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Some of my politically correct friends and fellow journalists are dissing Thanksgiving this year as Satan's holiday -- an occasion to celebrate American excess and gluttony in the face of international terror, rising unemployment and a shrinking economy. How, they ask, can we stuff our faces and wallow in cozy, self-satisfaction when thousands of Americans will face empty seats across the table? When hundreds of thousands of Afghans desperately await food relief packages that may or may not fend off a wave of death by starvation?

They've got a point. I deeply respect those who will, as a matter of principle, fast instead of feast. I respect those who will volunteer at a soup kitchen instead of hanging out around the kitchen stove at home. And I grieve at the thought of everyone in the world in need of food -- not just on Thanksgiving Day but every day.

But Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, and this year more than ever before, I feel a need to celebrate it in the most traditional way, surrounded by family and friends, warmed by the ritual of cooking and sharing meals together.

When planes are falling from the sky, and the morning paper greets us with photos of gleeful Northern Alliance troops dragging an injured Taliban soldier out of a ditch, killing him, then dancing on his corpse, where can we turn for comfort but to our homes? In a world turned upside down with terror, a few days spent in close quarters with family and friends, nibbling on turkey remains and leftover pumpkin pie seems innocuous at worst, comforting at least, life affirming at best.

Thanksgiving is always, to some degree, a reminder of those who are no longer with us. This will be the first year my family will not gather around the telephone in the sleepy afternoon hours to call Daddy Bill, my father in Nashville, to ask about his Thanksgiving dinner, to tell him we love him. His wife will join her sisters and their husbands around the table, nieces, nephews and grandchildren spread all around, but my father's empty seat will be the one that fills her aching heart.

On the balmy Gulf Coast of Texas, my mother and sisters will gather around the table, welcoming home my nephew who traveled far away to the Great Lakes for a semester in college this fall, suffering a homesickness so large and overwhelming that one frosty morning, he forgot to wear shoes to the college cafeteria. The thing that got him through, he told my mother, his grandmother, over the telephone a few weeks back, was thinking about Thanksgiving dinner, prepared by her hands.

Her empty seat at our table will be replaced with the ritual re-enactment of recipes from her kitchen, prepared in our kitchen a thousand miles away. My sons will each take a shift measuring and mixing, preparing pie plates and baking, invoking Mama Bettye's name affectionately with every other breath. We will share tales of Thanksgivings past, remembering everyone who will not be here with us, relishing entire days of nothing to do but eat, drink, talk and laugh together as the kitchen grows warmer, the air thick with spices. As the day wears on, the kids will slip out one by one, straining from the closeness, but they'll come back before dinner is served.

I'll tell them the story of Grandaddy's last Thanksgiving, a near disastrous family gathering when the twins were babies, their brother barely out of diapers, their sister a sullen pre-teen and poor old Grandaddy, at 88, resigned to living out his last months at our house. The night Mama Bettye arrived, Nashville was seized by a bellowing Arctic wind and a freak ice storm, the temperature dropping well toward zero. We knew it would be Grandaddy's last year at the Thanksgiving table, so we invited the entire extended family. Just about the time my brother, his wife and kids -- a neat, well-balanced family, Episcopalians among Baptists and heathen -- arrived from Knoxville, the pipes froze and the toilets stopped functioning. We wrapped Grandaddy and the babies in socks, sweaters, hats and blankets, hoping to ward off pneumonia, while my mother and I frantically tended to the turkey. The next-door neighbors graciously offered their bathroom, and hourly, bands of cousins were bundled up like Eskimos then sent into the raging cold, across the frozen lawn to relieve themselves. Come dinnertime, just as we settled around the table and Grandaddy delivered the blessing, the washing machine pipes blew in the basement, spraying freezing cascades of water across the family room. Mama Bettye, the babies and I spent Thanksgiving evening in a warm laundromat while the men cleaned up the basement mess. Grandaddy, unfazed, feasted on turkey and dumplings, his favorite, the next day.

This Thanksgiving we'll remember Grandaddy and Daddy Bill and all the sons, daughter, fathers, mothers, husbands and wives across America who won't be there, around the table, but whose memories will permeate the spice-filled air and will resonate in the last crumb of pumpkin pie. We'll remember the hungry in Afghanistan and everywhere and pray for a day when all of the world can celebrate Thanksgiving with a simple meal around a table crowded with loved ones.

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