Hello Mariposa@TL Community.
I shared this Thanksgiving Message in 2008, as Americans faced a suddenly looming financial crisis. It seems as timely today. I hope it stimulates reflection and thanksgiving for your own important family lessons this year, and in years to come.
Giving Thanks for Life’s Lessons
At Thanksgiving, Americans gather in extended families to reflect on our blessings and appreciate all that is good in our lives. The world has seen many changes since this time last year. Our dinnertime conversations will doubtless include our hopes, as well as our concerns about what the future may bring. In preparation for my family’s gathering, I’ve been thinking about our unique history, measuring the challenges in my own life against the backdrop of this larger perspective.
Like many Americans, my mother’s parents came to this country for a better life. Fleeing the chaos post WWI, they left their ancestral Italian village hoping for opportunities. In Oakland, with 3rd grade educations, they managed to develop a successful business selling fruits and vegetables in the produce market. By being “preservative” they survived, and eventually overcame painful losses suffered during the Great Depression. Their greatest pride was seeing their only child graduate from Oakland High School, and then Mills College, before becoming a public school teacher in Salinas.
Also first in his family to attend university, my father’s studies were interrupted by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, when he was deported to a forced labor camp. Upon liberation, he returned to Prague and finished law school just in time to witness the communist takeover of his government. Escaping to American-controlled West Germany, he eventually immigrated to America in 1948. From the few letters that were delivered to them, my Czech grandparents learned their son successfully earned degrees from Yale Law School and Harvard before taking his first teaching position at Cornell.
One theme of these stories is perseverance. When I find myself struggling, I remember my father breaking rocks in an enemy quarry, torn with the knowledge that the labor keeping him alive also supported his oppressors. I imagine him trudging through an icy stream, crossing snow-covered mountains to an uncertain future. I appreciate his parents’ grief, watching their son depart for a chance to thrive. I admire my father’s steadfast optimism, despite a plethora of evidence to the contrary, for the potential of a rational world operating on principles of international law.
Another theme is courage. When I am afraid to try something I’ve never done before, I think of my Italian grandparents, who left everyone and everything they knew, to take a chance on a better life on the other side of the world. I marvel at their gumption– believing in their own possibility– with the few tools of a basic village education, a small envelope of borrowed money, and not a word of English.
An overriding theme in my family is the value of education. “No one can ever take that away from you,” my grandmother would intone with the authority of someone who had suffered many losses. A few years ago, upon receiving my Master’s in Education, my mother gifted me with my father’s watch, inscribed: “With pride, Mom and Dad.” I wear it every day.
As we gather to give thanks next week, I will bring to life some of my family’s stories. What lessons can we learn from the experiences of our forebears? What demonstrated strengths might we draw on, to help us through adversity? Equally important, how will our response to the challenges we face today be viewed by our own children and grandchildren?
The experiences of my family teach that challenges may be avenues to life-changing opportunities. We should give thanks for lessons like these.
Best wishes for a gratifying Thanksgiving!