My neighbour from across the street continued, “So you celebrate two Thanksgivings, right? One at home and one here in Florida.”
“Right again,” I smiled. “On both counts.”
“Well then, I sure hope you got enough to be thankful for,” he said as he sauntered away.
I found myself thinking about that as I lay barely awake in bed this morning, long before dawn, wishing I were still asleep. In Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of every October, and this year we had gathered, as usual, with our two daughters’ extended families—numbering twenty-two with our granddaughters’ boyfriends added to the mix.
I first dated my wife when she was a lissome lass of sixteen, and neither of us ever went with anyone else after that. For sixty years, we have celebrated Thanksgivings together, and once upon a long time ago, hosted the family events. But we are honoured elders now, along with the other grandparents, and at our age, find the celebrations a tad tiring, if still wonderfully joyous. When someone asked what we are thankful for this year, we agreed on the big five—our family, our friends, our two homes, our financial security, and our continued good health. And then we raised a glass to the hope they will continue for some time to come.
American Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of every November, some six weeks after ours, and so, being in Florida by then, we celebrate it, too. More quietly, though, as if somewhat apologetic (as Canadians are wont to be) for our privilege and good fortune.
As I lay abed this morning, pondering these thoughts—half-awake, wanting to be asleep—I could sense more than see my wife beside me. Both of us were lying on our backs, she snoring ever so gently—as I had likely been doing, too, before stirring. And it slowly dawned on me that we were holding hands, our fingers loosely interlaced by our sides.
I smiled quietly into the darkness of the pre-dawn bedroom, acknowledging, not for the first time, that this is what I am most thankful for. No matter where I am.
Here in Florida, the holiday season is full upon us with the advent of American Thanksgiving. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I have set up my Wonderful Life Tree of Help once again, something I have been doing during every Christmas season since childhood.
My helping tree is festooned with ornaments celebrating the many ways I have helped people throughout my life. With all the modesty you have come to expect from me, I must tell you it is a magnificent display, and I am still adding to it.
Each ornament speaks to a person or group of folks whom I have helped along their way. Some asked for my assistance, others were the unknowing beneficiaries of my kindness, and although things did not always pan out as intended, I’m pretty sure every one of them would have been appreciative of my good intentions.
Mind you, the ornaments are the reason I think that, as no one has ever actually bothered to thank me directly.
That aside, I have a beautiful ornament commemorating the first time I realized I had this compelling need to be of assistance to others. In grade seven or eight, I saw two kids beating up another kid in the schoolyard, so I immediately stepped in to help. The kid never had a chance against the three of us.
Another ornament celebrates the time I helped one of my friends who was really upset because, rather than kissing him during spin-the-bottle games, the girls always preferred to give him the nickel penalty and go on to the next boy. I showed him how to open a bank account.
I have ornaments from my teenage years, too. Once, when I was re-stocking shelves in a supermarket, a woman asked me which brand of toilet-tissue was best. I was very helpful and told her on the whole, they’re all pretty good.
On another occasion, I was dragooned into helping my boss at a formal reception for his important suppliers. My job was to stand at the entrance to the ballroom, like a doorman, and call the guests’ names as they arrived in all their finery. They were quite astonished at the names I called them, and I awarded myself a beautiful ornament celebrating that occasion. Lost my job, though.
Later, as a young married man, I was hiking a wilderness trail with my first wife when we saw a huge grizzly ahead of us in the path. Although I knew I couldn’t outrun an angry bear, I was sure I could outrun my wife, so I told her I was going for help. She’s not with me anymore, but there’s a lovely ornament on my helping tree to remember her by.
Around that same period, I offered two pieces of advice to a friend having marital troubles of his own. With typical male smugness, I advised that the secret to a happy marriage was, first, to always let his wife think she was having her own way. The second bit, I told him, was even more important—always let her have her own way.
Eventually, I became a father, and that’s when my propensity to help others really bloomed. There’s a particularly lovely ornament on my tree marking the time I counselled a friend debating if he wanted to have children. I reminded him of how he used to wonder why his parents were always in a bad mood.
I also have an ornament on my tree in honour of the time I told a particularly harried father that it’s not enough to put a loving note in his kids’ lunchboxes—he has to put food in there, too.
Lest you think I neglected my own parental responsibilities, let me assure you that I helped myself become a better parent by always finding out in advance what my daughters wanted to do, then advising them to do that exact same thing. I earned so many ornaments for my tree by doing that simple thing.
All in all, my helping tree is a splendid sight, festooned with so many brilliant ornaments. My favourite might be the one celebrating all the lost strangers who have asked me for directions over the years, directions I made up on the spot. I wonder where they ever ended up?
Or perhaps it’s the ornament marking the time I helped my second wife with typing capital letters when she had her broken arm in a sling—I called it shift work.
Even now, at my advanced age, I find I’m still trying to help people, and I’m forever creating new ornaments to adorn my helping tree. For example, I’ve lately been counselling aspiring writers who get frustrated when they run into blocks by telling them they’re not good enough to get mad.
More recently, I explained to a younger friend despairing about his lack of success in life that the two things holding him back are an abundance of witlessness and a justified dearth of confidence. I’m not sure that cheered him, but I gave myself props for trying—and another ornament.
And just this morning, I earned my latest ornament by listening to a friend ramble on about his crackpot political leanings, then telling him I’d agree with him except that would make both of us wrong.
I confess it has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older to be of assistance to others. I’m finding that most folks tend to look away when I approach, or even scurry away in unseemly haste. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it seems I now bring happiness and support to people, not wherever I go, but whenever I go.
Nevertheless, I persist in my relentless efforts to help whomever I can. And to that end, may I suggest to you, dear reader, that if you find my advice tiresome and irrelevant, just stop reading!
A close friend posted a picture online recently, accompanied by a passage from John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and author. It read …and into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.
On this past weekend, our Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, two of my sisters went camping with their families, braving the October temperatures in the boreal forest of Algonquin Park. They also posted online, pictures and messages, waxing eloquently on the beauty and serenity of the wilderness world around them.
I have long believed there is no more beautiful place to be in the world than Ontario in the splendor of October—when the green forest recasts itself in glorious hues of scarlet red, bright yellow, incandescent orange, and intense burgundy. The sun, lower in the sky, shines through them, and they glow as if afire.
We lived on a lake in the north for a long time—a long time ago. One of our favourite October pastimes was walking the solitary cottage roads after all the seasonal vacationers had headed home. Smelling the wood smoke from chimneys of the few year-round homes, kicking the wind-strewn piles of fallen leaves, breathing in the nippy harbingers of winter borne on the autumn breezes.
Occasionally, late in the month, we’d even get the first falls of snow, blown hither and yon before melting away in the late October sunshine.
The forest was a refuge, a release, a reminder that life, once upon a time, was simpler and elemental.
Sixty years ago, I spent a summer planting trees on the slopes of a valley, formerly the rocky, infertile fields of a pioneer farming family. A lovely, clean river meandered its way along the valley floor. We worked in pairs, one with the spade, the other with the bag of saplings, and we traded places every half-hour, or so. I remember it as hard work, dirty work, thirsty work, to be sure. But I know now it was glorious work, where we were (to steal from the 1965 novel by Peter Matthiessen), at play in the fields of the Lord.
One of us would cut a T-shaped slice in the ground with the spade, then pry it up, splitting apart the base of the T. The other would gently place a sapling, each about six inches high, in the crevice, and press the ground back together around the fragile stem. When we finished a row, we’d retrace our path, pouring water from a bucket on each new plant.
I’ve lost track of how many trees we planted in a morning, or a day, or over the entire summer. But it had to be a lot. Hundreds. We’d never heard the phrase paying it forward…it hadn’t even been coined back then, I imagine. But that’s what we—such callow, carefree boys—were doing.
I had occasion some time back to drive through that same valley, not too far north of Toronto, and I stopped to look at the fields where we had laboured—private property now, far across the river on the opposite slopes. To my chagrin, I couldn’t see them at first. And then the astounding reality struck home. The fields were still there, but the green canopy of a forest covered them—a forest—shielding them from my view.
Our forest! Our trees!
I couldn’t walk through that forest, of course—touching the trees, remembering them in their infancy, as they passed from my hands to the soil that embraced them. Nor, truth be told, did I really need to. It was enough to recall those barren fields as they were, and compare them to what they became after we were there.
As I think back on that long-ago summer, I know I left things behind—sweat, friends, youth. Lost now in the mists of time.
But, as Muir so eloquently wrote, I found my soul.