Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday. It is secular, gift-free, devoted to home-cooked food, shared at a communal table. (Some anthropologists and evolutionary biologists argue that this is the basis of civilization, what makes us distinctly human.) There is a sense of equality at the family table: the quintessential Thanksgiving foods are simple, hearty fare, neither elaborate nor expensive, but deeply cherished.
Most of all, Thanksgiving is a celebration of gratitude, that simple virtue extolled by all major religious and philosophical traditions.
The day also holds a special significance for me because it reminds me of my aunt who recently passed away from cancer. Thanksgiving was her day. She was the oldest sibling on my mom’s side, and she felt a strong responsibility to keep everyone in the family together. She pulled us all in with her love: aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends. Everyone was welcome at her Thanksgiving table, welcome to cram into our group photo behind the ceremonial bird.
Growing up, it was my dream to host Thanksgiving dinner. That was my vision of success: a home of my own, doors thrown open in welcome, and a big dining table, groaning under the weight of countless dishes. It represented everything I wanted in life: financial security, stability, material comfort, good food, a loving family.
Most importantly, it represented the ability to care for others the way my aunt cared for me.
Over the last couple of years, the details of that dream have changed. My aunt and grandmother passed away. I don’t talk to my cousins anymore. My parents live in Bangladesh. My brother got married and spends holidays with his wife’s family in Maryland. Jay has no siblings and his parents never celebrated Thanksgiving. We aren’t planning on having kids any time soon. Even if I had a big house, there wouldn’t be any family to invite.
And my values have evolved away from the upper middle class suburban idea of home I once cherished. Jay and I are happy living on my grad student stipend while he looks for a job. We have everything we need in abundance and most of what we want. We are committed to maintaining a minimal lifestyle if and when our income increases: it’s better for our health and emotional well-being and better for the environment.
So, it doesn’t look like I’m going to host that big ole Thanksgiving dinner any time soon. But the heart of my dream, to care for others, that hasn’t changed.
I’ve just started looking at it a different way, thinking deeply about what to do after grad school. How can I live my values? How can I create social utility with my personal and professional choices? How can I walk in Ted Kennedy’s footsteps? How can I be the best version of myself?
And what does any of this have to do with Thanksgiving?
Here’s the thing: I have no idea what I’m going to do after grad school. But I know that I have options. I can choose a path that brings me happiness. I am healthy, well educated, and resourceful: I can do what I want to do. I believe in my own strength and I have the support of my loved ones.
That is an incredible and rare gift in life.
So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to express my gratitude.
I’m grateful for my parents, for everything they gave up for our family.
I’m grateful for my brother, for protecting me, even when it hurt him to do so.
I’m grateful that I was raised in Massachusetts, in a town with a decent public school system, that set me on my current academic path. And I’m grateful for Princeton, particularly for the generous financial aid initiatives hat allowed me to graduate debt-free.
I’m grateful for my health. Growing stronger physically has made me stronger mentally and emotionally.
I’m grateful for Jay. Our relationship is the foundation upon which all the good things in my adult life have been built.
Last but certainly not least, I am grateful for my aunt. She taught me that true strength is not aggressive or physical – it is the quiet persistence of love and kindness in the face of terrible circumstances. I will never forget that lesson.