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The Thanksgiving Lesson

This past week I traveled back to the US. My husband planned a surprise trip to see my family and a well deserved mom break… I was able to visit my family, my husband’s family, many friends and I was able to sleep in my own bed in my own house. Along the way, I was able to complete some tedious tasks and complete nearly all of my Christmas shopping via Amazon, Target and my beloved Meijer. I even brought Thanksgiving dinner home to South Africa via canned pumpkin and stuffing mix. To say my heart was full upon departure was an understatement. 

It was a fast ten days. And, the last evening was filled with my entire family. Their was laughter, banter and smiles among us all. It made leaving hard, especially with my dad still battling the effects of growing older and the sadness I saw in my parent’s eyes as I said goodbye. I was so thankful for the time we had shared over the past week.

I had a five hour layover in D.C. on my way back to Johannesburg. I sat in an empty Lufthansa lounge idly listening to a podcast on the day before Thanksgiving. A bartender by the name of Seth approached me with a warm smile and a gentle hello, and asked if I needed anything. I had an empty wine glass, and he was happy to fill it up. We began to chat about my upcoming transatlantic flight and how long it was going to be… long story short, it turned out he was Ghanaian and had been living in the D.C. area for 6 years. I asked him when the last time he’d visited home… It had been two years since he’d hugged his wife and four kids, two years since he’d eaten a familiar meal with friends and two years since he’d celebrated a holiday with those he loved.

We sat in conversation for a long time, and he told me about his decision to come to America to make a better life for him and his family… to make enough money to educate his children in hopes of a better life than he had in Ghana. He said he had always loved the idea of traveling and hoped one day he would be able to show his family where he now called home. He had been a teacher in Ghana for many years, and loved to take his students on field trips to explore the unknown. With a smile on his face, Seth reminisced of the adventures he and his students would embark on together. I had gotten the feeling Seth had been a good teacher, and his wanderlust may have come from those field trips from the past.

I asked him if he would be celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday. Seth seemed unsure how to answer the question. He then continued to explain how he had to work, but if someone had invited him to dinner… he would happily partake in what he described his favorite American holiday. I wished he did not have to work on a public holiday… the idea that stores are open on days like Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July down right drive me bonkers, but I guess working as a police officer, fireman, nurse or doctor or in an airport which doesn’t close makes it rather difficult… but I digress.

Surprised by the idea that Thanksgiving was his favorite American holiday, I inquired further to find out why it was so special to him. I assumed it was the pumpkin pie or green bean casserole, but what he said next floored me… I am paraphrasing here, but this is basically the gist – “Thanksgiving is a day when you can look back on your life and be thankful for those who have been a part of it. You can pick up the phone and call them to let them know you still think of them and let them know how thankful you are for their part in your life.”

I nearly fell off my seat.

He continued by saying we should celebrate days of being thankful more often (like all the time) and being able to honor the act of giving thanks was a gift. Most Americans are hitting the stores as soon as they throw the last dish in the dishwasher on Thanksgiving night in order to grab a 72” plasma TV for a steal of a deal or a pair of Beats for $100 off. It hit me like a bad oyster… Our priorities are all wrong.

Here is a guy who didn’t even grow up with the tradition of Thanksgiving, yet he gets it on an entirely different level. I’m not talking about the scenario where pilgrims and indians break bread because we know that’s not a good example of model behavior in history. He gets the idea of giving thanks to it’s very definition. He hasn’t held his child in his arms in two years, but he’s thankful for the technology that allows him to see them grow even though he’s 5000 miles away. He doesn’t get to see his friends from home, but he’s thankful they were part of his early years. He doesn’t get to spend holidays with those that he loves, but he knows his family still loves him.

Seth is modeling the true definition of being thankful and meaning it. I’m not sure he was happy with his life in its entirety, but he seemed happy when he spoke to me. He was smiling the entire time he spoke about Ghana, his family and his friends. To me, his words were profound. I don’t know why they affected me so much… maybe he made me have a little more faith in humanity, maybe he taught me a lesson or maybe he was destined to cross my path to remind me what being thankful is really all about.

So here’s my theory…

Perhaps by being a little more gracious and thankful for all the things we do have in our lives could inevitably make us happier. Being able to recognize what makes us happy  and those who have impacted our lives in the past or who currently make our lives a little richer on a daily basis keeps our story from becoming boring. These are the memories and the people who add layers of depth to our experiences, teach us things we could never imagine and provide us with love, comfort and support…. and maybe even a smile. If anything, Seth made me realize the need for finding the brighter side to life and everything it’s given me.

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