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In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. -- Excerpt from Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863.
That was equanimity. In the midst of a terrible civil war, Lincoln had the aplomb to offer thanks.
I suppose it is the Biblical tradition of sacrificing the fatted calf, but it always seems presumptuous to offer thanks by stuffing ourselves with the bounty for which we are grateful.
Yet, like all right-thinking Americans, I hold Thanksgiving to be the best holiday. Few things have remained so true to their essentials.
When I was kid we drove over the river and through the suburbs of Philadelphia -- not to Grandmother's house, because my grandmothers lived in far corners of the country, Houston and Los Angeles -- but to the big, old-fashioned house of family friends, Negley and Ruth Teeters. They were an older couple. Neg taught at Temple University and he and Ruth more or less adopted my parents when they were young and Temple hired my father and they moved to Philadelphia.
This made Neg and Ruth foster-grandparents for me and my sister and brother, and they could have been grandparents from Central Casting. White hair, clear skin, blue eyes. Neg played ragtime on the piano and Ruth had this upper Midwest accent that has always been my benchmark for reasonableness and rationality.
But these Thanksgivings were all before I was ten or eleven and I do not remember much that wasn't edible.
Mostly I remember Ruth Teeters' rolls. Ruth Teeters' rolls: those words were an incantation. The rolls were buttery and soft. Forget the turkey -- each year I would eat and count -- nine rolls, ten, eleven of Ruth Teeters' rolls. Thursday I will chomp into the sour LaBrea crust, and rip it apart happily, but I will dream of Ruth Teeters' rolls.
By the mid-sixties, when I was a teenager, Neg Teeters had retired and he and Ruth had moved away. Our Thanksgivings entered the Vietnam Era. In the Vietnam Era any large gathering of friends and relatives resulted in an argument about Vietnam, and it didn't hurt that my father was a Humphrey Democrat and my mother and her friends belonged to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
One Thanksgiving at our house my parents hosted both my cousin David who was at West Point, and my cousin Bob, who, having dodged the draft, was at college in Philadelphia. Wow.
One thing about the Sixties, there was always something to talk about.
Last week after looking at the electoral map I wondered in this column if we were still fighting the Civil War. Certainly, we still disagree about Vietnam. There is no consensus. My guess is that if you put your average Bush supporter in a room with your average Gore supporter, gave them some drinks to loosen up, and casually mentioned Vietnam, they'd be arguing in a minute.
So over the weekend, in between the talking heads from Tallahassee, I tried to catch a glimpse of President Clinton in Vietnam. I'm not complaining about the coverage -- I understand that actual history rates over merely momentous news. But still.... Maybe it's a just a baby boomer thing, but my heart beats faster when I remember.
Resolving our relationship with Vietnam means more than selling more widgits to China.
My son was born on the last day of 1989, that annus mirabilis. I have tried to explain to him what it was like growing up worrying about atomic annihilation. I have tried to explain why the Vietnam War was different from all those other wars he's obsessed with in his ten-year-old way.
There is a lot of shouting going on in Florida now. We do not know who our President will be. But "peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed."
That's something to be thankful about.
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