I believe gratitude doesn’t come in the front door all dressed up and bearing Thanksgiving pies—rather, it slips in through the kitchen door like the plumber did when the pipes were clogged just before my second daughter’s home wedding. Forget what you’ve heard about not missing your water until the well runs dry. You never know what gratitude the sound of a flushing toilet can bring until you’ve seen one overflow three times during the week of your daughter’s wedding.
My point is that gratitude is not the same as giving thanks. It comes from a deeper place that knows the story could have ended differently, and often does.
Gratitude is surviving the worst thing you can imagine (for now! Trust me, there will be another calamity at some point, one so awful you’d trade it in a heartbeat for sewage seeping onto the carpet) and realizing that you are still standing.
Gratitude helps you cheer the news that the lump is not malignant, and helps you to be grateful when you learn, as my friend Diana did, that her husband was not in any pain from his cancer, and could come home from the hospital to die with the cat on his bed, his dogs underneath it and family all around. Any of us who have lived past 50 surely understand the kind of gift that was to her, even if she had no options but to unwrap it.
I had an old friend, a really old friend named Mimi Gregg, who was about 50 years older than me. She came to this tiny town in Alaska in 1946 with her husband, two babies and her mother, a former opera diva named Madam Vic. The Greggs had bought the old Army barracks sight unseen and hoped to make it an artists’ colony/tourist destination. But the plan never panned out, so with no money or jobs, Mimi’s artist husband had to learn to hunt and fish and make furniture. But Mimi and her husband also entertained themselves and their new Alaskan friends in those pre-TV days with plays, dances and costume parties. Mimi always had most of our neighborhood over for Thanksgiving, baking soft buttery rolls in her wood-burning cookstove while a tape of La Bohème swelled in the background. Mimi lived well into her 90s and I never once heard her pine for the good old days or wish that her life was something other than it was.
I learned a lot from Mimi. She taught me to go ahead and invite everyone over for dinner even if you aren’t sure where they’ll all sit, and to ask them to bring along a side dish or dessert and something to drink. When we were in community plays together she really did believe that “there are no small parts, only small actors.” That sentiment translated into all she did, and thus all I did in the roles I took on in the community, from being on the school board to singing in the choir. Mimi worked for the newspaper, something I would also do. She understood the importance of getting the words right and meeting deadlines. She raised four children and they all went to college. My five have all done the same. When I asked her the secret of her long marriage when mine was still young, she said, “Take the long view. If it won’t matter in 10 years, let it go.” If I said I didn’t have time to help her with a play or bake for an arts council fundraiser, she’d say “Oh, piffle,” and remind me that if you want to get something done, you ask a busy person.
I don’t regret a single day of my friendship with Mimi, but I do regret not telling her how grateful I was for her mentorship. She taught me so much about how to live in a new town, in what seemed like a new country to me, a suburban New Yorker. In a small place one person can make a difference. And for me, that difference was Mimi.
We ate and laughed and Nancy opened presents. At one point Nancy got serious, and asked for our attention. “We have known each other for a lot of years, and I am blessed to have such good friends,” she began. “We’ve been through a lot together: marriages, babies, teenagers, divorces, illnesses, deaths. Maybe it’s because I’m getting, well, older,” she said, laughing and taking off her reading glasses (in truth, she looks fabulous, not a day over 49), “but I really wanted to say how truly grateful I am to have my mom and Joanne here. You are both such a good example of women who have lived life well, and who continue to, even after losing your husbands and going through difficult times. You inspire me, and I think all of us. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to let you know how much you mean to us.” (Or something very close; I couldn’t take notes on the napkin with everything suddenly so blurry.)
So this Thanksgiving, like every Thanksgiving, of course, I will give thanks for all my blessings, which no doubt are the same things you are grateful for—family, friends, food—but I will do so knowing that the people I love won’t be at the table forever. I will be so grateful for who is still here, and with any luck at all, that will give me the courage to be like Nancy, and tell them so.
Heather Lende is a contributing editor to Woman’s Day. Her most recent book is Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs. She lives in Haines, Alaska.