5209107871_dcd07c7dbe_oImage by Satya Murthy via Flickr

All this week, we are featuring a new series to  honor “Women Who Serve.” As we begin our celebrations and traditions this Thanksgiving, our Women’s Voices writers will share daily stories of the women in their communities who have exemplified a beautiful spirit of service to others.  Today, Barbara Fertig lets us in on her coffee conversation with her friend “A” who shares her experience of being homeless in Savannah, Georgia. —Ed.

My friend “A.” is homeless. Hers is not a woeful story, as far as I can tell, but a story of resilience, independence and determination. She dresses like a woman, with a sense of personal style, and although her clothes are second hand, they are chosen and maintained with care. Here in Savannah, Georgia, there are not only showers for the homeless, but also laundry facilities as well.

We have met for coffee and a discussion about Thanksgiving feasts for the homeless.

She brings her own mug. It was a Christmas gift from a local church. “After all,” she says, “what would you give a homeless person for Christmas?” I think about that. I have never thought about that before. I find myself confronting the notion of an existence in which all rules of human interaction might have to be rethought, all expectations modified, lest the heart be broken. But here we are chatting, in one of Savannah’s notable coffee shops, just like everybody else.

This in itself  is a rare occurrence among the homeless.

According to my friend, and I do count her as a friend, we share opinions, a sense of the absurd and various intellectual pursuits, as well as a mutual interest in how she lives. I don’t know whether she has any interest in how I live; that may be part of her defense. According to my friend, homeless people tend to be very vulnerable; many of them share a “language” for communicating with one another and another form of speech for the outside world. Some of them cannot communicate with our world at all, except to say, “Got any spare change?”

Thanksgiving is evidently the best meal of the year for homeless people. Here in Savannah there are sit-down meals, and there are takeout facilities. Some places have regular kitchens and cooks; some depend upon pot-luck contributions, and are almost overwhelmed with food. When A. has access to a refrigerator it is possible for her to live for a week on the leftovers. Last year, as she was walking away from dinner, a car pulled up beside her. The car door opened, a woman rushed out, handed her a platter of food, and drove off. “People seem desperate to give you a good Thanksgiving,” she remarks, “and then it’s over. There’s very little at Christmas.”

What is it about Thanksgiving? We learned as children that the first iteration of this celebration occurred in Plymouth among a splinter group of Puritan separatists from the English church, and an indigenous people, the Wampanoags, who had helped them to survive a difficult year.  These “Pilgrims”were accidental settlers, bound for Virginia, unrelated except by location to the main Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Within a few years they and their communitarian belief system had disappeared as a distinct settlement.  

Yet their harvest festival of 1621 has gained mythic stature in American history. It’s first icon was the painting by George Henry Boughton: a somber procession of celebrants warmly clad against the snowfall through which they make their worshipful way. Among their numbers must have been the resident tailor, who, seated among bolts of English wool (brought over in the Mayflower’s hold) must have stitched away the summer while his fellow settlers built and furnished rude timber shelters, cared for livestock, grew and preserved all that they would need for a second winter,  and occasionally dropped by for a fitting.

Our second icon is the gift of Norman Rockwell, whose Four Freedoms poster for the Office of War Information has everyday occurrences depicted in three of its illustrations (a man rising to speak, people praying, a couple putting their children to bed) but for Freedom From Want we have the full bore Thanksgiving Dinner: the turkey, the admiring family, all the trimmings.

For Franklin Roosevelt the Four Freedoms were a recurring justification for waging this war, although for his critics the depiction of the bountiful repast smacked of his welfare programs. His other association with the holiday was his attempt to add a week’s more shopping days to the Depression by moving it to the third week in November. By 1941 he was forced to move it back to the fourth Thursday, chosen by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as a day to honor the fallen and to help the nation to heal.

A day of thanksgiving was earlier declared by President George Washington as an observation of our triumph over the British. John Adams and James Madison followed suit. Here the record becomes murky until its purposeful change by Lincoln, who might also have had an eye on the upcoming November 1864 presidential race. It becomes clear that Thanksgiving has escaped the confines of a mere harvest festival at this point. There is even some question about whether that original harvest festival occurred, especially since the Wampanoags proved quite disenchanted with their new neighbors.

Instead, Thanksgiving has become the most popular of American holidays. It is no longer, if it ever was, the property of any particular religion, culture or political party. It is not an occasion that demands an exchange of gifts, and it seems to evoke some need to gather together the family, the group of friends, even the homeless into some form of togetherness. According to A., it is also an important occasion for those who prepare the feasts for the homeless; women who look forward to an annual coming together for the purpose of service, but also to enjoy the camaraderie once again. And, indeed, as A. observed, it is the one gift that all Americans can easily give one another: either providing the feast, or enjoying it.

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  • Carol McCray Davies December 1, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” is a common question frequently asked as the holiday nears. One must have an answer, the right answer, “Oh, I’m going to my grandparents, sister’s, aunt’s, or having everyone over to my house”. Never must we admit we have no plans. But lots of people have no plans, have no home, have no one, as this fine cultural history of Thanksgiving shows. My Thanksgiving must have the “right” kinds of food, the familiar smell of turkey roasting and same side dishes each year or it’s not a real Thanksgiving dinner. The event itself isn’t authentic without certain beloved foods like sweet potatoes, green beans, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. The dinner table presentation too is important and meaningful. Does one carve the turkey at the table or in the kitchen and present the carcass all arranged and sorted by body parts on a large platter? Is the cranberry sauce a canned gelatin tube shimmying on the plate, or a homemade orange and cranberry chutney with marsh mellows and nuts? All these things matter for the perfect Thanksgiving meal. But life is not perfect, and sometimes we don’t get the exact meal with the same smells and tastes we have such fond memories of as children. And sometimes we don’t have plans. But the spirit of Thanksgiving comes each year, and we give thanks for that.