Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

Gratitude for Late-Life Friendships

My heart goes out to the many families who will be missing a member at this year’s holiday celebrations because of a covid-induced death. I have yet to lose a family member or very close friend directly from the pandemic, though the final year of our close late-life friend, Phyllis, was impacted. She had to journey through end-stage cancer with limits on visits from loved ones, limits to her travels beyond what her illness proscribed. 

We’d known Phyllis for about a decade before her death. She was among the first non-family members to welcome us to North Carolina when we arrived here. More recently, she and her husband had finalized plans to relocate to their “retirement haven” in rural Virginia just before her diagnosis. We were very lucky that there was a summer lull in the pandemic while Phyllis was still ambulatory. She and her family visited friends in North Carolina one more time, a sort of chance to say good-bye.  

As I grieve Phyllis’s absence, I’m comforted by the example she set of dying well and of leaving a nourishing legacy. She spent as much of her final months as her energy allowed painting nature scenes, a gift she had put on hold for much of an active life. Her son just posted an image of art created by a young artist at a school to which Phyllis had bequeathed her unused paints and drawing supplies.  

At this Thanksgiving, made virtual for so many by the pandemic’s continuing spikes, I need to be especially grateful for late-life friendships like ours with Phyllis and her family. Many of our friends from earlier life stages have been work colleagues, or family members of our children’s friends, or affiliates in non-profit groups. Though genuine, these friendships were somewhat opportunistic and sometimes withered as our locations and life stages changed. By now, we’ve retired, our children are grown and establishing their own friendship networks, and more and more non-profits are conducted virtually even when there’s not a pandemic. 

This year’s limitations on in-person holiday gatherings have highlighted what connections we still can have. Not long after we’d gotten up this morning, we got a surprise phone call from a different late-life friend, a former next-door neighbor, recently retired and living across town. A confirmed “foodie,” Greg wished us a happy holiday and shared a story of a memorable Thanksgiving feast when he was living in Germany and tasked with contributing a pumpkin pie to a community celebration with his graduate student colleagues. Turns out, fresh or canned pumpkin were rarities in the part of Germany where he studied. The only variant he was able to find were jars of pickled pumpkin. Numerous iterations of rinsing the jars’ contents before cooking didn’t entirely restore the taste of a traditional pumpkin pie. 

Another set of late-life friends that I cherish are members of a pre-covid walking group, now on temporary hiatus. All of us are retired. Many of us have lost spouses. Most of us have health conditions that slow our steps and make uphills more challenging than earlier. Still, whenever I go for a walk outdoors, either with my husband or alone, I mentally have the “Tuesday morning walkers” with me. 

Even once the covid pandemic subsides, through vaccination and/or better public health preventative measures, I will remain at the stage of life when more of my contemporaries will die off. It’s important, then, to cherish them while we still can. As my husband explained on a down day for both of us, “We’re likely to spend an increasing proportion of our time mourning deaths of friends and loved ones, until it’s our turn to be mourned.”  

So let us give thanks for life, thanks for the capacity to share our stories, whatever the medium, thanks for friendships, especially those late-life friends who can help make this trying time more bearable. Happy Thanksgiving and a big set of virtual hugs!      

Who Did You Expect?

Who Did You Expect?     —by Jinny Batterson

My life so far has been fortunate—no privation, little discrimination, generally good health, many chances for love and adventure.  Much of the time, though not always, people I’ve met have lived up to (or beyond) my expectations. On those rare occasions when someone’s behavior has disappointed me, more cynical or world-weary friends have shrugged at what they regard as my naiveté. 

“Of course so-and-so let you down,” they’ve announced. “What did you expect?”  

Increasingly for me,  the appropriate question is rather “Who (or, for the grammar police, “Whom”) did you expect?”  As I mature (a work in progress), I become more aware of instances when I’ve pre-judged people and turned out to be fairly far off the mark.

The first occasion that stands out is my initial in-person meeting with the leader of our 1980 group tour to China. In those pre-internet days, I’d exchanged postal letters and paperwork with Ms. Baum and talked with her on the phone. Until we both arrived in San Francisco’s airport departure lounge for our trans-Pacific group flight to Hong Kong, I had not actually met this native New Yorker. I’d assumed from her accent and phone demeanor that she was of Jewish background. She seemed somewhat pushy and no-nonsense, ready to take on the world. I was surprised to see that she was African-American, not ethnically Jewish. She could be somewhat pushy and no-nonsense. Her prior experiences as both social worker and travel agent had prepared her well to take on whatever bureaucracy attempted to get in her way, regardless of ethnic origin or nationality. She turned out to be both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.

Earlier this fall, I signed up to work the polls in the 2018 mid-terms. After on-site training, I exchanged emails with the woman who’d be my site supervisor for early voting. Her written English was good, clear and simple. Her family name was a common one, her given name, ending in “a,” suggested to me she might be African-American, or maybe Hispanic-American. When we met, I could detect no skin coloring or hair texture to suggest ancestral links with Africa, no hint of foreign origin in her accent. She seemed at first a very “vanilla,” somewhat conservative American. During our work, she showed her passion for ensuring that anyone who wanted to vote was given maximum opportunities to do so. She’d sit patiently with someone lacking appropriate credentials, or with an address not yet entered into the electoral system database of rapidly growing Wake County. She knew the rules well. She could suggest pulling up an electronic copy of a utility bill on a portable phone. She might advise going home to retrieve a needed ID and then returning later in the day. In rare cases, she’d have the potential voter fill out a provisional ballot, explaining how and when to check whether their vote had been counted. The workforce she’d helped assemble to follow her lead was the most visibly diverse I’ve ever participated in. She was both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.    

I’ve just spent Thanksgiving with parts of my extended family that I barely knew growing up in Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Only once had I had a chance to visit these North Carolina farmer cousins from a rural area near Charlotte. What little I remember from that farm stay involves ponies tame enough so even I was persuaded to take a short ride. I got to see my grandmother’s sister-in-law make glorious biscuits using milk straight from the cows. The cousins closest to my age teased me good-naturedly about my lack of country skills.

After moving to North Carolina a decade ago, I became reacquainted with some of the cousins who’d left the farm to settle in Raleigh. They’d tell me enticing stories of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering at “the shed.” I pictured the locale in my mind: an expanse of gently rolling hills, empty except for a few horses or cows grazing in pastures. “The shed” would be a slightly cleaned-up farm outbuilding. Twenty or so aging cousins of Scots-Irish ancestry would assemble for our midday meal, then say interminable grace before we could eat. Someone would have cooked a turkey and brought it still warm to the feast. We’d eat plentifully, exchange pleasantries, carefully avoid politics, and then everyone would go home.

This year as we drove into the neighborhood nearest our destination, I had trouble reconciling my mental image with current reality. The surrounding area may once have been farmland, but the vicinity had long since become part of suburban Charlotte. A mid-rise apartment complex dominated the nearest street corner. The “shed ” had been expanded and modernized from an earlier role as storage space for some cousins’ plumbing business. It was now a comfortable, well-appointed venue with adjustable seating for up to a couple hundred people. Nearly that many cousins of all ages were in attendance, along with baby equipment, pet dogs and a few footballs.

We did have a short sung grace before the long, snaking buffet line formed. We did generally steer clear of contentious political topics. People caught up on family news since the previous get-together. One 20-something cousin had recently returned from an extended Peace Corps stint in South America; in the next generation up, a househusband described his four years of helping school their daughters while his family was on assignment in southern Europe. One attendee I didn’t get a chance to talk with directly had a skin tone and accent that implied ancestry or origin in India. The Reas still cherished their rural roots and pioneering ancestors, but the clan had gotten more diverse and widely traveled—both different from and similar to the “who’s” I’d expected.

The remaining holidays of late autumn and early winter are likely to have more extended family gatherings and chance meetings. May I remember not to pre-judge those I encounter, to be more careful not to let “who I expect” get in the way of meeting current reality with an open mind and heart. 

Rea Thanksgiving at “the shed”

Thanksgiving by the Grand Canyon

Thanksgiving by the Grand Canyon   —by Jinny Batterson

This Thanksgiving season, parts of our extended family gathered in the Arizona upland town of Flagstaff, near the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. We came by car and/or by plane, converging over the course of two days at a vacation rental house we’d booked a couple of months ahead.

For Thanksgiving Day, our daughters-in-law cooked up several yummy vegetarian offerings. As a sop for the meat-eaters, Grandpa and I supplied a grocery chain rotisserie chicken.  After we’d all eaten our fill and stowed the leftovers, we swapped stories and iPhone photos, walked around town in the fading November light, then eventually retired to sleeping quarters in our spacious rental.  We spent “Black Friday” mostly indoors, but not shopping—continuing to adjust our internal clocks, nasal passages, and digestive systems to different time zones, altitudes, and local bacteria.  By Saturday, all of us were feeling somewhat perkier.

After breakfast, we loaded our crew of nine into one minivan and one rental car and headed for the Grand Canyon, with a grandparent in the back seat of each vehicle to flash our “Senior Passes” for free entry to an area of the national park along the south rim. The weather was brisk. For most of our ride, the sky was clear, with a few fluffy clouds flicking shadows across the dry, partly wooded landscape.  As we approached the canyon, the clouds thickened. By our entry to the park, we were under overcast skies. Snow flurries drifted down.

Older son had mapped out a route for his daily training jog along one of the rim trails. We dropped him at his entry point. The rest of us then walked a much shorter distance toward the Kaibab trailhead. The grandkids pawed in the snow that lined parts of the path (too dry for good snowballs). As we neared the trailhead, the air acquired an animal smell. The grandkids encountered their first mules, stabled close by. Encouraged by the middle generation, they eventually petted the mules’ heads and offered small bunches of grass gleaned from just outside the paddocks.

We heard a variety of human languages other than English, saw people in various layers of outdoor wear and varying stages of fitness. After a few minutes of watching hardier hikers descend and ascend the trail’s upper reaches, we walked back to our cars, then drove to one of the visitor center areas for lunch. Runner son reappeared as we finished eating and restocked his metabolism with pizza and fruit juice. Later, all of us took a park bus to a stop near the further end of his jog, with a couple of overlooks viewing the canyon and the river at its base. This was my third Grand Canyon visit—the first as a teen with my parents, the second at river level with spouse and teen children, and now as a granny whose grandchildren in turn will likely take a canyon river rafting trip once they’re old enough.

The canyon has always amazed me. The play of light and shadow are constantly changing the look of this “big ditch,” nearly 18 miles wide at its widest, a mile in depth at its deepest, with multiple layers of multi-hued rock from rim to river. The Grand Canyon was established as one of our earliest national parks in 1919. Parkland now covers over a million acres and includes over 270 miles of river. In 2013, the park hosted over 4 and a half million visitors, employed about 500 permanent and seasonal employees, and registered 8 fatalities.

While vacationing, we rarely paid attention to media news. Once the lot of us had returned to our primary residences, we learned of another U.S. mass shooting—this time in San Bernardino, California, a town I’d previously known only as a stop further westward from Flagstaff along historic auto Route 66, the one that “winds from Chicago to L.A.”  Increasing frequency and media attention to mass shootings gives all of us pause. We hope it’s not an enduring trend.

In retrospect, having spent part of my holiday at a site with a much longer time scale seems an even greater blessing. It helps, I think, to avoid getting overwhelmed by the tragedies of the moment to have a touchstone like the canyon. The Grand Canyon’s human history dates back nearly 12,000 years; its geological history is reckoned in eons. Its flowing waters, sometimes almost imperceptibly, have over long periods of time worn away even the hardest rock.