From Pilgrims to Hellatives

As trees shed their leaves to lay a carpet over the earth and autumn’s harvest provides its bounty, children learn about, and reenact, a mystical banquet feast in which Native Americans sat down to share a plentiful meal with Pilgrims who sailed to these shores seeking paradise nearly 400 years ago. One first grader, wearing the traditional construction paper black and white buckle-style hat pouted on the sidelines of the circle where classmates dressed to represent both sides of the Atlantic; after refusing the invitation of his teacher to join in, he eventually admitted his frustration to her: “They got to eat with Indians and we have to eat with relatives!”

It’s not only a first grade problem—lots of adults dread this annual mingling with their “relatives from hell” and likewise shrink to the sidelines.  Many kids run to hide in their safe places at the arrival of oversized aunts who squeeze their faces and slobber on them like lollipops or drunken uncles who hunt for a chainsaw to acquire a Christmas Tree or ladder to hang holiday lights.  Every family has a version or two of Cousin Eddie on their roster and it’s always a venture to share space with them.  Because we can’t pick our relatives or manipulate our DNA, we simply accept and laugh about who we are as a clan.  If a few siblings happen to marry upward and gain a little class, suddenly we’re Cousin Eddie!  The reality of the earth’s nakedness in late autumn is a good metaphor for the self-effacing acceptance we must sometimes experience in our own lives.  It helps us to recognize a greater truth below the reality.

Part of that truth is found in the Thanksgiving table—whether or not you even get a seat at the festive dining room table or are relegated to a spot in the basement or garage.  The table is the centerpiece of the day, much as the table is the centerpiece of our Catholic liturgical gatherings.  Somehow, sinners and saints that dine together at the Eucharistic feast are as awkward as the Natives of this land and Immigrants from other shores joining together near Plymouth Rock long ago, as awkward as the Apostles who gathered for the Last Supper (a denier, a betrayer, a doubter, abandoners…) much longer ago, and as awkward as family members today that gather to express their love to each other while attempting to rise above whatever gossip, jealousy, regrets, inhibitions, hurtful behaviors, or harmful pasts may exist below the surface.

The reluctant little first grade Pilgrim is a lot like the rest of us. We desire to sit at the glorious banquet feast alongside those we long to be with but are left, instead, to eat with those we, sometimes, can barely tolerate.  It will have to be this way for now.  But when we reach the ultimate “other shore” in the ultimate paradise, there will be an eternal banquet feast awaiting us.  There, everything will be as it should, beyond our wildest dreams and greatest imagination.