As a child there was only one thing I dreaded about Thanksgiving. It wasn't the juicy turkey, sumptuous stuffing, mashed potatoes, Waldorf salad, pies, more pies, and if I was well behaved, even more pies. No, nothing on the menu was dread-worthy.
What caused me heartburn wasn't anything that happened during the meal; it was something that happened right before the meal. I knew odds were high that my father would be the one to bless the food and give proper thanks.
I heard my father pray countless times growing up: over meals, in the car, at bedtime, at church, as Jack Nicklaus stood over a putt to win the Masters in 1986. But it was over Thanksgiving dinner that my father took the responsibility of saying grace to rare-air level. The prayer lasted so long that by the time we finally ate, most families were already enjoying their late-night turkey sandwiches. There was one year when Dad's Thanksgiving prayer went so long we went straight from the table to the Christmas tree to open gifts.
It was during those prayers that I learned to listen with my eyes closed. Or were they, Mother? Like a trapped prisoner looking through jailhouse bars, I peered through my thick eyelashes to make sure one of my siblings hadn't grabbed the hot roll over which I'd already shouted "dibs!"
Many years later, it's my turn to be the dad, and I've decided to launch my own approach. Throughout the holidays, at dinner every night until New Year's, we all say one thing we're thankful for.
There are only two rules to our Holiday Gratitude Challenge. You cannot repeat anything someone at the table has already said, and you cannot repeat any item from a previous day.
We started a few nights ago. It has been an interesting exercise to think of things we're grateful for that might not be so obvious.
I challenge you to take the Holiday Gratitude Challenge. If you do, you'll find low-hanging fruit in the first few days. After all, who isn't grateful for their family, their country, the scriptures, etc.? It's what comes next that really opens your eyes to the personalities of your children and, perhaps, to Mom and Dad.
I discovered that my wife is grateful for Steven Sasson, the mind and the man behind the first digital camera. That's probably not something that would've come up in the typical Thanksgiving Day prayer. But she feels genuine gratitude that someone brought cameras, digital and original, into the world and into our home. She's right; just try thinking of life today without the camera.
As for me, my family learned that I am grateful for innovative genius Hans Riegel, creator of the gummy bear. No explanation required.
My oldest daughter is grateful for Steve Jobs and his ubiquitous iPod. Again, no explanation required.
Her younger sister is grateful for the art of origami. She's quite talented, and, if we let her, she'd build her own paper house in the backyard and move in immediately.
My 7-year-old son is grateful for his collection of little things. Little cars, little pins, little rocks, little treats he sneaks into his little pockets.
My youngest son, age 3, is grateful for Mr. Walt Disney and for the parents who brought him into the world. If Mickey Mouse had a Mouse Mom and a Mouse Dad, my little guy would be grateful for them, too.
What other things are we grateful for that don't automatically come to mind?
I am grateful for airplanes. Imagine a world where every time you needed to get from Va. to LA you had to hop in the car. Imagine the meetings you would miss, the family reunions never planned and the funerals with too few in the pews.
I am grateful for Gregory Orr, a poet and professor at the University of Virginia who inspired me to do what I do. He turned tragedy — having accidentally shot and killed his brother when he was young — into art by writing a series of stunning poems and later a gripping, gorgeous memoir. I am grateful for him and for his courage in sharing his story with the world.
I am also thankful for cell phones, hot water heaters, garage door openers, men and women in uniform, and Taco Bell.
I hope you and your family will take the Holiday Gratitude Challenge. You might be surprised at what things you rely on and how grateful you are for them.
Reminiscing on my own list reminds me that while my late-father's never-ending Thanksgiving Day prayers sure made my stomach growl, I'm enormously grateful for them, too. I wonder if wherever he is right now, he's still blessing last year's Thanksgiving Dinner.
I hope so.