November 15, 2011

Food for Thought This Thanksgiving

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Like all holidays, Thanksgiving means different things for each of us. This past weekend, the holiday began to weigh on me, as it never has before — allow me a couple hundred words that I hope will help add perspective as you and your family feast together.

While I’ve never celebrated Thanksgiving outside of the U.S. (it is recognized in Liberia, the Netherlands, Norfolk Island and Canada), I’m going to assume harvest festivals worldwide follow a similar regiment of raging fairly hard on grub: pulling up in a driveway, food, family banter, food, stomach-compressing forced laughter at a distant relative’s joke, food, belt-loosening, practically falling asleep at the table and finally rallying to polish off more food than you thought possible. Unfortunately, it seems my family will have trouble even picking up our forks and knives to begin this year’s meal, slated to be held, as per family tradition, at my aunt and uncle’s house.

On any normal Thanksgiving while we gorge ourselves on glorified stuffed bird, the historically minded mention the 1621 meal between pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth, the nutritionally minded empathize with the 33.8 percent (of adult Americans who are obese) and the conscientious consider Native Americans on their National Day of Mourning for innumerable and enduring historical, moral and legal atrocities. It’s difficult to stomach turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes and death in the same gulp, but perspective is important, especially on family holidays. My family usually goes around my aunt and uncle’s table to describe what we’re thankful for. Three generations list one small thank you and one big, ranging from a great car-nap hours before to surviving the Holocaust — perspective is important.

This past Saturday, my Uncle David, father of Heidi Kaufman ’98 and Matt Kaufman ’00 died of non-smoker’s lung-cancer. Diagnosed once the disease had already spread throughout, he was sentenced to about 10 months to live. Forty-five months, three years still helping public school teachers, three summers still working at camp Ramaquois and three grandchildren later, my Uncle was wrenched from his fight. Even if you know death is coming, the moment it happens is still sudden, harrowing, extinguishing. On an extended weekend bookended by overnight bus trips, I said goodbye to my Uncle, his eyes closed but ears open. I helped my parents write eulogies, walked my grandfather through his son’s graveyard and stood by my cousins as they buried their father and my aunt buried her husband. In my lifetime my family has never been through something so tragic. I’d like to think my family has also never been closer. We’ve celebrated holidays and birthdays in hospital rec-rooms and bedrooms before, but unfamiliar surroundings don’t compare to glaring absence.

I’m not ashamed to admit that many years of family gatherings have felt like going through the motions. In a family oriented around a 91-year-old patriarch as heroic, powerful and devout as my grandfather, holidays can become routinized and ritualized, with scarce time for substantial conversations. In the past two days, every time I’ve dialed someone in my family, even thirty-second conversations have felt more substantial than two-hour classes. We’re all afraid of missing my uncle’s quiet but brilliant presence more than we do now when there’s no one to carve the turkey, no one to sit at the head of the table next week.

But days of profound emptiness offer tears of substance. I doubt any meal with many people around a table will ever be the same for me after this Thanksgiving, and I’m preparing myself to remember that feeling — the joy of everyone in every seat at my table — for years to come. Turning a tremendous loss into a tremendous goal isn’t easy, but I have faith in us, you, me and our enormous human family.

In case you’re not sure, this isn’t a typical column, not for me or for The Sun. I always inject this column with some this-day-in-history perspective and tie a neat little bow around on-campus news and random tidbits from our past. I wish I could write about how thankful I am for my generous financial aid package, for the drivers that help me and my bum ankle get to class every day, for Vildana Nuhodzic, unsung heroine of the Cornell lost and found who located my headphones, or for my best friends in our uber-digital age. But right now, I can’t.

My Uncle — a lifetime educator, longtime camp director, United Federation of Teacher’s chairman, and a father and son whose devotion knew no bounds — would have probably told me to write about the juxtaposition of the Nov. 16, 1925 inauguration of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism and the Nov. 16, 1945 inauguration of the Yeshiva University as the first American Jewish college. He might have also liked a piece on Nov. 16 as the day entertainment changed forever: In 1824 5th Avenue first opened for business in New York, in 1959 The Sound of Music debuted as the first popular Broadway musical to address the Holocaust, in 1965 the Disney Corporation made its first public announcement of Disney World, and in 2001 the very first Harry Potter movie was released.

But on this three-year anniversary of the agreement to withdraw American troops from Iraq by 2011 and the 37-year anniversary of the first interstellar radio message humans sent to a cluster of stars 25,000 light years away, I leave you with a peaceful and universal note. When you and your family sit around your table in eight days, think about the big things and the little things, and everything in between. Thank your family for being with you for a day and for a lifetime. Text, even call your friends because, not-so-secretly, they matter so much. Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday, and I’m not asking you to transform it into one. But Thanksgiving is a profoundly human holiday, and I hope this year, at the very least, we can all figure out what that means. I know my family will be trying.

Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkose@cornellsun.com. Scrambled Eggs ap­pears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Kose