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The first time I heard about Thanksgiving, I was standing in a phone booth in Dublin’s city center. It was 1986. I had a stack of coins and an air mail letter that included my friend Mary’s phone number.
Two years earlier, Mary had emigrated to the U.S., where she now she lived in some woodsy-sounding place called Oakland, California. In her letter, she had offered to let me crash on her couch, when or if joined her (and about 200,000 other young Irish fleeing our native country).
My coins pinged through. The phone rang and rang. Finally, a young man answered, sounding sleepy and annoyed. No, he said, Mary wasn’t there.
“Is she still at work?”
“No, my roommates are all gone skiing. I’m the only one here.” He added, “They’re in Tahoe for Thanksgiving. Like, that’s a holiday here.”
Thanksgiving. In high-unemployment Ireland, I wasn’t feeling very thankful. Instead, at 24 years old and already four years out of college, I felt ancient and lonely.
Also, all the imported American sitcoms and cop shows I’d watched presented an America that was workaholic and consumerist. Thankful? No. It didn't fit.
“Is there a message?” he asked, impatient.
“Yeah, tell her I’ll ring again. When this Thanksgiving thing is over.”
... if life in the States has taught me anything, it has taught me how to be -- or strive to be -- kind.
Outside, the afternoon daylight was already fading over the river, and the smell from the Guinness Brewery, nearby, reminded me of old coffee. As I walked across O'Connell Bridge, I imagined a big American car whizzing through a sunny landscape toward Tahoe, which to me sounded more like a board game or a breath mint than an actual place.
Waiting for my double-decker city bus to come, I flicked through my mental Rolodex of everyone else I knew in America. Elderly, second-generation relatives. Friends of friends. What state? What city? How far were these places from one another anyway? Who might let me gatecrash their American lives to (hopefully) re-launch my own?
And I was one of the lucky 20-something Irish who was actually employed. After college graduation, I'd landed a job teaching first and second grades in a village about 40 miles south of the border with Northern Ireland. I was the fourth and last teacher to join that ramshackle parochial school where, in an island nation, some of my students had never seen the ocean.
In my attic flat, I spent many insomniac nights listening to a Northen Ireland radio station that played American performers like Emmy Lou Harris, Merle Haggard and Bill Monroe. Their ballads spoke to me. They also reminded me that I could be in that little school in that little town until retirement, unless I made something happen.
So, about a month after my transatlantic Thanksgiving day phone call to Mary, I made my move. An Irish relative set me up with his friend in upstate New York — and lucky me, the airfare to New York was much cheaper than a ticket to California.
By the time the next Thanksgiving came around, I was at a Friendsgiving near Albany. The house was loud with chatter and music and booze as people passed plates of hot hors d’oeuvres. It was all very festive. (It was also all very wrong. I mean, what kind of country has a big winter feast that upstages Christmas?)
I was at the gathering with Ken, a native upstate New Yorker, who had become a kind of docent for me — a cultural interpreter of American quirks and traditions. At some point, Ken disappeared to use our host’s hallway phone to call his widowed mother and siblings. His family lived a half-hour down the highway, so I was puzzled as to why he was here and not there. After the call, he was uncharacteristically quiet.
“You OK?” I whispered.
“Yeah,” he said. “This is my first Thanksgiving not spent with them.”
“Then why didn’t you go?” I asked.
In that loud room, he moved closer. “I didn’t want you to be alone on the holiday."
Nine months later, Ken and I got married. This summer, we celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary.
For the past 20-plus years, we've lived on Boston’s North Shore. It’s here that we’ve created our own traditions, including a long walk on Thanksgiving morning. We’ve hosted and attended some Friendsgivings, over the years, all of them delicious and welcoming, if not as raucous as that first one back in 1987.
Like many Irish expatriates, I sometimes used the days off work around the holiday for a quick trip back to see my family in County Mayo and Galway City. Of course in Ireland, Thanksgiving was just a typical Thursday. I remember a visit, in 2001, when my home country was in the final phase of the Celtic Tiger economic boom. While my siblings were at work, I went strolling through the city center and stopped at a shopping center. In the atrium cafe, I ordered a cappuccino and then, in the glass-fronted display case, I spotted the plastic-wrapped sandwiches. Turkey. Oh yes, this was a day for turkey.
The place was packed with after-school teenagers and designer-label shoppers and laptop-tapping executives on their afternoon tea break. As I sat at my table, it felt as if urban Ireland now fit my once imagined, and mistaken, version of busy, consumerist America.
But now I had the benefit of decades’ worth of stories about the generosity of ordinary Americans. And if life in the States has taught me anything, it has taught me how to be — or strive to be — kind. It's also taught me how to celebrate and give thanks for the small, incidental gestures.
I eventually abandoned that flavorless turkey sandwich in favor of my cappuccino. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, everyone I knew — of every faith and creed — was gathered around a table giving thanks.
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