Five Kernels of Corn

(For those just joining in, this month I've been writing an experimental memoir as part of National Novel Writing Month. Today's entry includes political commentary so I'm sharing it more broadly.)

It was a period of prosperity and protest. I would sit in the hard wood pews of the big white First Congregational Church and look out over the quad to the student union of an ivy league college. It was the world I grew up in. In the evenings, on our small black and white television, we would hear Walter Cronkite tell his viewers how many U.S. troops had died in Vietnam that day. A few years later, he would be telling us about how many U.S. students had died in the United States protesting that war. Yet Vietnam and Kent State were worlds away to an elementary school kid raised by fairly conservative parents.

We were still going to church in those days. My mother would bake bread for communion. This was the Protestant style of communion, with grape juice in little shot glasses and small cubes of bread my mother had baked. Years later, my father left the church because of its opposition to the war in Vietnam. He had a square peace sign on the back of his truck proclaiming Peace thru Victory and had supported Barry Goldwater.

At Thanksgiving, we would sign hymns, like “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hand and voices”. We would sing about gathering together to ask the Lord’s blessing. On our way home, we would sign about going to Grandmother’s house, even though there were no snowy woods to go through.

It was a world of Robert Frost and Norman Rockwell. It was a world where the pilgrims looked large, and many could trace their families back to the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Traditions were strong and important. We were not like the well off families living in town. We lived up on the top of Henderson Road, a ride from town. Later, it would make it more difficult taking the late bus home from band, which would drop me off a mile and a half from my house. I would wear cast off clothing, from older brothers or friends in the church with older kids. We would shop the Women’s Exchange for used clothes for the kids and at factory outlets that were really part of an old factory, and not a trendy shopping mall.

Kids used to make fun of me for what I wore, but that too, just seemed like part of daily life.

At Halloween, we would dress up in whatever costumes my mother could make and visit our neighbors. Several were elderly and it was an important time for them to have visitors. I kept trick or treating for years, partly just because I knew it was important, and I would sit down and talk with them as they offered me an apple. At some point we started trick or treating for Unicef. Living on a poor section of the hill, we didn’t bring in as much as my friends who lived downtown near the nice houses, but it was important for each of us to do our part.

When Thanksgiving came around, we would get a little envelope at church that we would bring home. It was very much like the pledge envelope that we would put our nickels and dimes in for church. Back then, it was important for even young folks to learn to give a little bit back to their church and to their community.

Yet the envelope that we would bring home was different. We would save it until Thanksgiving Day, and then open it. Inside would be five kernels of corn. We would open the little envelopes and hear about how the early pilgrims had had to ration food and were unsure if they would make it through the winter. We would hear about how through hard work, cooperation, and through kindness shown to them by the natives they made it through the winter. It was a time of moral stories around the family table.

Thanksgiving was not about opulence and abundance, it was about survival, and although I never thought of myself as coming from a poor family, uncertain about where the next meal came from, it was part of my family history. My father’s father had died when my father was twelve and they face difficult times. My mother had lived through The Depression on a small New England farm beside the Connecticut River. The second hand clothes I wore were simply the way everyone got clothes, I thought.

Looking back at those days from today’s lens, it seems so different. Some have started to point out that Thanksgiving is not a day for Native American’s to be thankful. The settlers brought with them disease and war and wrecked havoc on Native American life. Others have drawn contrasts between what happened when the Europeans came to North America and people trying to enter our country today.

Yet it seems as if the key point of the debate is being missed. Those pilgrims facing hunger and possible death, as represented by the five kernels of corn, survived because the people already in the land helped them out. Perhaps we should be more like those Native Americans, and instead of building a larger fence, and passing laws to make it more difficult for the new comers to our country, we should be helping them out.

Likewise, the five kernels of corn should be a reminder for us to be thankful, not for the new flat screen television that we had to fight for Thursday evening amidst a large crowd of shoppers, but for the simple sustenance we receive in difficult times.

Connecticut soup kitchens, which provide today’s equivalent of five kernels of corn, lost food to spoilage as a result of the power outage. The needs for food of the hungry increase in our state even as donations go down.

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw a tweet from a church in Bridgeport, inviting anyone and everyone who would be thankful for a hot meal to come enjoy a free Thanksgiving day feast, complete with roast turkey and all the trimmings. I retweeted the message because it occurred to me that the meal in the church hall in Bridgeport would probably be closer to an authentic Thanksgiving meal that the large feast immortalized in the painting by Norman Rockwell.

My mind wandered to those dour old Pilgrims who came to this country out of love of God, and not the love of money that dominates so much of the political discourse. I thought of those who knew that the key to survival was the ability to cooperate with one another and help them out, and not to take advantage of ones neighbor. I thought of those for whom giving back to their community was a Godly responsibility.

Where have we gone wrong? My idyllic childhood faded as my parents separated. Some blame the demise of the American family on our decline; the lack of dinner time discussions about five kernels of corn. That seems a bit facile and incomplete. What caused the American family to decline in the first place? Even if that is the case, what can we do now to revive our country?

I talk with my kids at the dinner table, and I’m sure they roll their eyes as much as I rolled mine when I was their age. We no longer have Walter Cronkite telling us all we need to know about the days’ news, and perhaps we need each of us to tell the news. Perhaps Walter Cronkite and the dinner time discussions are merging into a new form, the blog post. Yet I look at a lot of the blog, and I’m not so sure.

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