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After a year of incremental belt-tightening that would inspire the envy of the most hardened anorexic—overshadowed by a pandemic plague of kid-killing swine flu—it’s hard to muster up enough gratitude to choke a chicken, let alone garnish a turkey.
This year, I watched Frank punch in eighty-to-ninety-hour time cards on the job week after week, as if saving up to win a ticket for a ride on the the Cardiac Express. Like everyone else he dined on the fine crusts of fear that if he didn’t toe the corporate line, he might end up walking the soup line instead.
2009 was the year that American industry held workers and their families to ransom—because they could.
As if that weren’t enough of a squeeze on the arterial lifeblood of the American workforce, corporate cutbacks on benefits meant children’s food, doctor’s bills and swimming lessons took precedence over buying anything personal—including age-related health supplements—to keep the wheels on the domestic machinery turning smoothly.
Behemoths like Pacific Gas and Electric—upon whom we depend to feed and nurture our children with heat and light—paid loads of lip-service to helping the needy. But since we couldn’t claim poverty, we watched as the gas and electric charges just kept climbing towards the earth’s orbit like Jack’s fabled beanstalk.
I went back to “counting”—a method of shopping I learned in my starving student salad days when I would arrive at the cash register and know the value of my purchases within the dollar.
In short, I felt the greedy took advantage of a gasping economy to pummel the workforce into slave labor, claw back any financial “trifles” that might have made the stony path gentler on the foot, and snatch the grocery-money from our hands like candy from a baby, if they could.
Around our house, the oft-repeated mantra: “It can always be worse!” rang in the hallways more often than the doorbell.
So profoundly has the spirit of the American family been tried with hardship this year that it seemed an anathema to write a Thanksgiving story. I couldn’t bring myself to mouth the platitudes: “Let us be grateful we still have job, a roof over our heads, food on the table.”
I was reluctant to do so. I didn’t feel grateful. Until today.
Alex woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning with a temperature of 102 degrees and a phlegmy cough. Frank and I were instantly awake, armed with a thermometer and an icepack. We looked at each other wordlessly across the bed in which our son lay, with the same fear looming in the backs of our eyes: Swine flu?
My heart was gushing with guilt—last week I had turned off the heat, dressing the children more warmly at night, in an effort to cut down on the gas and electric bills that weren’t just inflated, but bloated beyond all reasonable recognition.
Had my effort to economize contributed to his ailment?
As the morning hours passed, and we watched closely for the hallmarks of H1N1, I suddenly remembered the bitterly cold winter of 1967 in eastern Canada. It was the year my father nearly lost his business—the same winter the gas company turned off the “tap” because he could not pay the bill, leaving a family with five children without heat or a working stove during the coldest month of the year.
I was seven years old—the same age as my son is today.
Refusing to be daunted, my father went out and re-appeared with an electric hot plate and our meals were cooked upon its two humble heating elements for more than a month. “Space heaters” were placed in one room to keep us warm and, at night, we shared our beds.
It’s hard to imagine the kaleidoscope of fear, guilt and anguish that was rolling through his mind. He was a child of the Great Depression and used to regale us with tall tales about hunger, cold and games played with nothing more than children’s imagination.
Even though we didn’t have Swine Flu back then, there is, however, one thing I am sure of: In that moment, my father knew that it can, indeed, always get worse. He understood the fragile thread of human existence from which each of us dangles so precariously.
It’s now lunchtime and Alex is eating a bowl of homemade soup. He’s hungry.
Although he’s very sick, it’s almost safe to say he’s not pig sick. And I’m not sure that, after a year that has drained us of money, hope and strength, I could endure it if he was.
I am grateful. I am as grateful as the days on which I learned I had conceived my two babies at the unlikely time of midlife. I am grateful that we’ve had the means to keep them safe, alive and well as we navigated an inhospitable sea fraught with financial maelstroms.
I am grateful that we are here, today, to share our time together as a family.
Frank paused from his labors of love today to inform me that we’ve miraculously been given a rebate from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and our bill this month is the smallest in our history as their valued customer.
To God I speak of my gratitude; to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, I’ve got only one thing to say: “You’re a day late for the Great Recession and more than a dollar short of any real generosity!”
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