Thanksgiving—Not Just About the Food

Wow! I can’t believe Thanksgiving is next week.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, right next to Halloween. I have this love-hate thing about cooking Thanksgiving, as it’s a culinary test of endurance and planning, as well as a challenge for myself to making this meal better and more memorable than the one before. Usually around this time I’m very stressed with planning and preparation, but this year I am given a break. I am little sad about it, but at the same time, I am somewhat relieved because my lower back has been giving me problems lately.

Thanksgiving is also important to me because it reminds me of my adopted Irish grandparents, the Powells, who had opened their home and hearts to my family when we first came to America.

Their son, Joe, had married a Korean woman, Kyung Hee, whom he met while he was stationed in Korea. Kyung Hee and Joe were one of my parents first friends in America. They helped my parents get settled into an apartment and took them grocery shopping and drove them to places until they were able to afford their own car.

When my mother went into labor with my younger brother, Kyung Hee and Joe brought me over to the elder Powells’ house since my dad was in the middle of his medical internship and couldn’t take care of me, and both Kyung Hee and Joe had to work. The elder Powells didn’t quite know what to feed me, a one-and-a-half-year-old Korean toddler who was missing her parents and not wanting to eat anything. So, they gave me some potato chips. After all, who would not like potato chips?

After one bite, I eagerly accepted a handful. And then another and another. And then when both of my hands were full, they offered me some more to see what I’d do next. Instead of putting down what I already had in my hands, I opened my mouth to accept the next batch. “What a smart baby,” they said. They loved to tell this story.

It was a tradition for us to go over to Grandma and Grandpa Powell’s house for Thanksgiving. There we would feast on a spread that came directly out of a Norman Rockwell painting. My favorite was Grandma’s stuffing and gravy and her desserts. She’d have three or four pies—pumpkin, apple, cherry, pecan—and her fabulous coconut dream cake, which my father still reminisces about. Imagine a heavenly concoction of several layers of the lightest yellow cake with pineapple filling between the layers, and whipped cream and coconut on the outside. (One of these days, I will have to hunt down that recipe and make it for him.)

We would be very surprised and feeling a bit guilty to see her not eating, but only after I’d started cooking Thanksgiving dinner did I realize that she’d probably been grazing all day and feeling very full just from the smell of food. The joke between my parents was that dinner was never quite complete until they came home to eat some kimchee and bop (rice) to help the turkey go down.

We also celebrated Christmas and Easter with the Powells, as well as our early holy sacraments such as communion and reconciliation. They also came to some of my piano recitals and sent me presents to celebrate my hard work when I got all A’s on my report card.

Even when they moved out to Spokane to join their son and his family, they remembered our birthdays and regularly sent us cards and letters. And then tragedy struck. A drunk-driving teenager sped through a stoplight and rammed his car into theirs. Grandma Powell died in the hospital a few days later. And although Grandpa Powell sustained minor injuries, he died a few weeks later from a broken heart. I still remember his last letter—he had described how much he missed his Catherine, whom he’d never been separated from the day they were married. And then within a year, their son Joe drowned in a freak accident, leaving behind Kyung Hee and their five children—Jimmy, Danny, Cara, Colleen, and Brian.

I remembered thinking, how can God let such a good family die/suffer like this? They were so kind, loving, and giving. It just made no sense.

I still don’t have the answers. All I can think of is that we need to make the most of the bonds we have and to celebrate and give thanks to the people around us for being in our lives. Most importantly, we need to show our appreciation and love every day—and not take our loved ones for granted.

For me, Thanksgiving is not just about the food, but about the people that we are fortunate to have in our lives. How lucky we are for all that we have and for the people who enrich our lives with their love.

And even beyond the grave, the Powells seem to have bestowed a challenge as well—to regularly give of ourselves, especially to people we don’t know, because that is often the hardest to do.

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