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Thinking Thankful

by Julia Sneden

Thankfulness is rather like love: it comes in many forms. Like love, which often treads close to a narrow line with hate on the other side, thankfulness sometimes edges mighty close to resentment. Like love, it’s an emotion that can be both personal and communal, individual and collective.

There are sure-fire triggers that stir gratitude in all of us, for instance:

A walk outdoors can bring a kind of generic thankfulness for the beauty of our world, the season, the weather, the place, or even an isolated event, like a sunset or a meteor shower.

Most of us feel a deep, connecting gratitude for our families and/or friends.

Or there’s the (slightly guilty) collective thankfulness that we who live in a bountiful country feel, knowing that others across the world are so poor. It goes along with a deeply patriotic gratitude for our country’s history, and for our ancestors who were wise enough to seek the freedoms we enjoy. Along with the latter, there’s even grudging thankfulness, expressed by one of my friends who was not happy with the outcome of the recent election. “At least it wasn’t a complete rout,” she said. “We’ll be forced to work together.”

For seniors, there may be fingers-crossed thankfulness for one’s good health, or successful recovery, or perhaps simply for whatever life is left to us.

Those are all communal kinds of thankfulness, common to just about everybody, and they’re certainly worth a National Day of Thanksgiving. But the kind of thanksgiving that’s immediately important to most of us is an intensely personal gratitude for the specific events of our lives.

For me, that often takes the form of thankfulness for things that did NOT happen. White-knuckler that I am, it’s what hits me every time the wheels touch ground at the end a long, successful plane ride (and even more so when one of my loved ones arrives safely at a destination, no matter what the means of transportation).

I also suffer from a kind of vanity-based thankfulness that I didn’t inherit my father’s prominent ears, or Aunt Julia’s beaky nose. A corollary to that is my gratitude that none of my sons inherited my short stature.

On the other hand, I’m thankful for the genes that gave me good physical coordination so that I have been able to enjoy sports and exercise all my life. I can see that advancing age is going to limit that pleasure, but at least I’ll have the memory of it.

I’m thankful for non-genetic things, too. For instance, I am grateful for the change that my retirement has brought to my morning routine. No longer do I have to wake in the dark, shower quickly, grab a cup of coffee, and dash out the door to scrape ice off my windshield so that I can be well-put-together, smiling, and ready in my classroom by 7:45 a.m. five days a week.

I’m thankful for the hundreds of students I taught, who in turn taught me, and for the warm memories of their presence in my life.

I’m also often thankful for sheer happenstance. How many of my friends and loved ones have been acquired by a chance meeting or event!

I’m even a believer in conditional thankfulness, as in: “I will be so grateful if we don’t have an ice storm this winter like the one that took out our power for five freezing days last year!”

But I am most of all thankful for the great gift of my children. Sometimes, of course, that gift has brought pain. Sleepless nights were the least of it. At least then I had the illusion of being in control. These days, when active motherhood has essentially self-destructed, there are occasional moments that bring on a flood of sadness-tinged nostalgia.

This morning was a bright, brisk, autumn day in North Carolina, which is in itself enough to make anyone thankful. As I took my morning walk, I was enjoying scuffling through the leaves when I heard it: the sound of a basketball being dribbled. There was a small ping! in my heart, which is what sometimes happens when I hear or see something that reminds me of my sons, long grown and gone from home. The sight and sound of a couple of kids bouncing and shooting a basketball on a Saturday morning has the power to trigger all sorts of memories, even though my eldest son is well over 40, the youngest is about to be 35, and I myself am a long way from the empty nest mopes. In retrospect, those hours seem golden, back 30 years ago when I could look out the window and watch the continuing game of pickup that took place every afternoon and weekend around the basketball hoop in our driveway.

I had to laugh at my sentimentality, but around the very next corner there was yet another ping! to the heart. A couple of kids who looked to be about eight or nine were scuffling over a soccer ball, heading toward a makeshift goal in the back yard. Their mother stood nearby with her back to them, talking on her cell phone. “I wonder if you know how lucky you are,” I found myself thinking as I looked at her. It was all I could do not to catch her eye and shout: “Hang up, for God’s sake, and enjoy your children while you can!” not unlike Henny Penny who shouted “Alarm! Alarm! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

Well, at my age, I’ve developed some self-control, for which I am once again thankful. It keeps me from making a complete fool of myself.

In the long run, I really do know that it is better to suffer the pings! to the heart than never to have had the extraordinary experience of motherhood. Anyway, these days I have grandchildren who are perfectly dandy little dribblers of soccer balls and basketballs. And no one needs to remind me to be thankful for them!

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