Christmas without a Christmas tree? New Years without Champagne? Can you imagine the Fourth of July without franks, beans, and fireworks? What’s Memorial Day without American flags, solemn remembrances, and parades, or a Valentine’s Day without its heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and cards that say, ‘I love you.’ A pumpkinless Halloween is unimaginable.
I must tell you, however, that I can imagine a Thanksgiving without turkey and all the trimmings more readily than I can Thanksgiving Day without electronics. I had a sobering revelation last Thanksgiving.
I want to paint you the picture that remains indelibly imprinted in my mind, no, not imprinted, but seared into my memory. It occurred here on Thanksgiving Day last year. We had four of our grandchildren with us, all adolescent girls, and their parents. There were also the two of us. This is the typical complement of people here on Thanksgiving, a cadre of eight.
The dining room table works well for this number, and we can feed everyone. We have plenty of room for the several platters of food and the decorations that our grandchildren assemble for the occasion.
Our den is a different matter. It’s tight in there for eight people if everyone sits in there for the football game or the parade. My wife and I will not do usually sit with them. We’ll be tending to the cooking. The kids will chip in cheerfully should we ask. This leaves the six in a manageable space where they can settle in and watch TV.
I have an un-American streak. I don’t really enjoy watching football on TV, nor any sports, for that matter. I take some good-natured heat from my red-blooded American kin (including my wife), who are all sports-freaks. Some will wisecrack during the football game, calling out from the den (for my benefit) that a player just made another home run.
It’s all a part of the Thanksgiving ambiance. It is what we do. It’s fun.
Everyone was in the den that day, except Jo and me. I was in the kitchen, opening oysters. In an hour, I’d make a fire in the fireplace, the kids would make crab and cheese dip and we’d have drinks, and oysters by an open fire.
I went into the den to announce that we’d soon be moving into the living room for our hors d’oeuvres. I stood watching.
It isn’t as if the electronic era just arrived on that Thanksgiving. I know it’s been around for a long time. I can only attribute the size of the room to the stunned impression I felt. The room was packed elbow to arm with bodies, all of whom were deeply engrossed in their own electronic devices; the kids on their iPhones, parents on their computers while the television in one corner of the room attempted vainly to communicate its message of male virility to anyone who might look at the football game. No one did. It was a signature portrait of American individuality – of being together while at the same time not being together at all. I found it a remarkable sight.
I’ve sometimes wondered, when I’m out at a restaurant, and somebody has a conversation on a cell phone, why it irritates me so. It may be an unexamined assumption I have. I want my fellow diners to be enjoying the same space as I am, but their behavior suggests that they have little interest in it. I was going to say that their mouths were at the restaurant, but their hearts were elsewhere. Of course, their mouths weren’t there either since they were running them with someone somewhere out in cyberspace.
Frankly, I was genuinely surprised at the scene I beheld in the den last Thanksgiving but was not all that offended as I might have been in a restaurant. This was because I knew when they all left the den to go into the living room for hors d’oeuvres, while they would not surrender their electronics, they’d neutralize them for the moment and be ready to join in the community tradition of our pre-Thanksgiving dinner game of Charades played by a roaring fire.
The television is to the postmodern family what the fireplace had been to our colonial forebears. Then, everyone gathered by the fire for warmth and to talk. Today families gather around the television to be quiet and to watch.
I would observe that the pleasures of TV are more solitary and don’t do much for the mind. One screen now provides all the needs of the mind, the words to hear, and then pictures that illustrate the words. Around a fire, family conversation provides the words, and the imagination keeps creating the pictures.
Don’t get me wrong. After all, as a writer, I’m often on a computer, and I love to watch old movies on TV. My point: daily life in the electronic era is a new world. It’s added another dimension to an old tradition. Except maybe for the turkey, the pilgrims wouldn’t have a clue as to what we’re are all about on Thanksgiving.
In any event, via this electronic communication, I extend to all of you my wishes for a lovely Thanksgiving Day.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.