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Thanksgiving on a park bench

| Tuesday, November 19, 2019

There is a Thanksgiving that my family and I had one blustery November in New Mexico that stands out from others I have experienced. On its face, it might not seem all that different to you, but it is special to me in a way that is hard to describe. If I told you what it was like on paper, it might seem like your quintessential Hallmark holiday with Boston Market turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Yet, this could not be further from the truth. You see, this Thanksgiving on that blustery November day was held on a park bench outside a library my family and I went to all the time. It was not that we did not want to have Thanksgiving in the warmth of a house. Rather, we did not even have a house of our own to eat in at the time.

I sometimes get strange looks from people when I tell them about the park bench Thanksgiving. I get strange looks when I tell people my family and I were homeless when I was younger, that we cleaned homes that were on the housing market for realtors in exchange for a place to live.

I get even stranger looks when I tell them these were some of greatest times in my life, that I am thankful for them and would never change them.

When we were homeless, a family tradition we had every Thanksgiving was to write all the things we were thankful for on bits of printer paper and place them into an old plastic container we very originally called the “Thanksgiving Bucket.” This tradition grounded me; it showed me how much we really had to be thankful for even though we sometimes went days without running water or food. Even though living at school has all but made this tradition obsolete, and the “Thanksgiving Bucket” with its fading construction paper on the outside sits with a crown of dust on a bookshelf back in New Mexico, I wanted to say some things I am thankful for in honor of this tradition.

I am thankful for my parents for being the giants that allowed us to get through these times of homelessness. They are the best, strongest people I know. I am thankful for their tenacity, the fact that they provided their children with a fun, memorable Thanksgiving experience even when all the circumstances at the time would seem to have gone against this. It does not matter that the clothes we wore came from thrift stores, that the food we ate was the generic brand. These were some of the very best times I have ever had, but they still would have been impossible to get through if it weren’t for two of the very best people on this Earth. I am thankful they filled my mind with some of the greatest stories and novels in literature. This was the fire that allowed my sisters and me to create imaginary worlds where we could travel to any time and place we dreamed of. It never once occurred to me that we lived in a draughty, ramshackle house with no promise week to week of whether or not we would have to leave. To me, the old houses we lived in were castles with dragons inside, secret bases out of a James Bond film, doors to worlds and universes beyond comprehension.

I am thankful for cardboard boxes we used as tables and chairs.

I am thankful for the leaks in the houses we stayed in and for the memories running from each stalactite stream with a bucket in hand to catch them.

I am thankful that my parents had our door open on Thanksgiving, and that this day was often spent with the lost and the lonely, some of the greatest company with the greatest stories.

I am thankful for tears and laughter.

The day after Thanksgiving is the time when my family and I put up Christmas decorations, and I am thankful for the times when we cut out a tree made of brown paper and placed it on the wall of a house that was not our own because we could not afford to buy a plastic tree. Yet, we never had a shortage of paper decorations and lights for this tree.

I am thankful for nights spent under the stars in New Mexico, when the skies were clear of clouds and we could see constellations for miles.

I am thankful for the dark, the lonely, the melancholy, the winter. You have stoked the fire inside me, and I have risen from the ashes.

I am thankful for Thanksgiving on a park bench.

Outside the library where we had Thanksgiving, there was a large, open stage, and in my mind’s eye I could see damsels and knights race across the stage as if in a “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” great battles at sea, Carthage’s last stand against Scipio Africanus and the forces of Rome. All the world’s a stage, and I spent much of my early life lost in my imagination. But lost is not the right word.

I wrote this column from the warmth of my dorm room, surrounded by friends and in the midst of creating memories that will last for my entire life. But I will never forget the times when we imagined great feasts we did not have, the times when chicken from Walmart was ambrosia and nectar, the times when we would watch the stars and dream of infinite worlds.

These were the best of times, the worst of times, the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness, the epoch of belief, the epoch of incredulity. But above all, these times taught me what it meant to be human. I would not change them for the world.

Thank you.


Gabriel Niforatos is a junior majoring in political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program in Public Service. He is passionate about giving a voice to the disenfranchised and writing is the muse he is persistently chasing. He can be found at [email protected] or @g_niforatos on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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