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Thanksgiving 2020: Counting simple gifts in a tough year for everybody | COMMENTARY

A rare American elm, one of the few left in Baltimore, is silhouetted against a winter sunrise on the north side of the city.
A rare American elm, one of the few left in Baltimore, is silhouetted against a winter sunrise on the north side of the city. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Everyone, even the mildly optimistic American, will come to the Thanksgiving table this year feeling worn out, worried, disappointed or cheated. Directly or indirectly, everyone has experienced the pandemic and the final, exhausting run of the Donald Trump presidency.

As years go, 2020 will live in infamy because so many of our fellow Americans died from a disease caused by the coronavirus. If this were not the 21st Century, if we did not live in an advanced society capable of limiting the ravages of a virus, we would be a nation in dutiful mourning, accepting cruel fate and placing wreaths on graves. Instead, we mix anger with mourning because our leadership failed early in responding to the threat and the virus has taken a heavier toll than it should have. We give thanks for being Americans, but now know, if we didn’t already, that our country is far from exceptional, both by its choice of president these last four years and by our national performance against the worst pandemic in a century.

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Still, here in the final weeks of 2020, we’re supposed to observe tradition (without large gatherings), take stock and give thanks.

That seems like a contradiction — expressing gratitude in a year that many speak of profanely — but then, the reasons we give thanks have always been personal.

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Thanksgiving asks us to conduct an annual inventory and be grateful for the simple things, and I’m guessing that’s collectively truer this year than all others.

If no one in the family died from the virus, if you have decent health, if you still have a job or if you own a business that’s still operating, even at lower capacity, you’re thankful for the chance to survive and get to the other side of the pandemic. You keep things in perspective: Everyone in your family made it to Thanksgiving, and that’s worth celebrating.

“I’m happy and blessed that no one in my family is suffering from COVID,” says Tim Wolf, a fishing acquaintance who’s been out of work since March and collecting unemployment benefits. “I have seven brothers and sisters, and we’re all healthy, and so are all of our children. Our faith is holding us together. It’s been a little stressful, but we’re all gonna get through this. It’s just gonna take more time than we thought.”

If you’re not as sanguine — if you took a devastatingly emotional, physical or financial hit — even then, you can find reasons to give thanks: Vaccines are on the winter horizon. There will be a new president in January focused on getting the country through the crisis and rebuilding the damaged economy. Joe Biden also wants to rebuild our alliances and show the world that our democracy survived these last four years.

Maybe you don’t want to hear that. Maybe you come to Thanksgiving in no mood for turkey or taking stock.

Everybody does what they want — it is, mercifully, a quiet holiday of modest expectations — but I suggest the therapeutic counting of simple gifts, like being able to breathe and taste food. I suggest taking a walk and finding a good tree to admire. Scan what’s around you in the natural world as if you have title to it and, like the troubled character who leaves a psychiatrist’s office in an E.B. White short story, look for the “flashing tail feathers of the bird courage.”

If it’s any help, this is some of what I came up with in my Thanksgiving inventory:

I’m grateful for the bounty of Roma tomatoes and Cubanelle peppers that came from my COVID Victory Garden, and kept coming until just a couple of weeks ago.

I give thanks to the workers at Giant, ShopRite, Safeway and all the supermarkets for keeping the shelves stocked as best they could through the early part of the pandemic.

I’d like to give a personal shout of gratitude to the great blue heron who hung out with me for about three hours one day in April during the shad run on Deer Creek.

Thanks to the postal carriers, the guys who pick up our trash, the men and women who deliver packages for UPS, FedEx and Amazon. I have renewed appreciation for what they do, with so much more expected of them during the pandemic.

I thank the people we can’t see — the doctors, nurses and staff deep inside hospitals treating COVID-19 patients on top of everything else they do.

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I’m thankful for the people in lab coats working on vaccines.

Let’s show some gratitude for all the teachers working hard to make education happen under tough circumstances.

We should be grateful for all the 2020 elections officials and poll workers, too.

I want to thank the people behind Orinoco Coffee, based in Jessup, for an outstanding cup of coffee each morning.

I’m thankful for 85-year-old Gina Petitti and her Buon-A-Petitti YouTube channel. During the pandemic, it has been a great comfort to watch this grandmother cook Italian food in her kitchen in New Jersey.

Thanks to our friends: Maureen for the big slab of peach cake in August, and Mike for finally printing the photograph he took of my family back when the world was young; it lit up an old sweet memory.

And I’d like to thank the giant American elm in my neighborhood for its endurance, for providing cooling shade in the Baltimore summer and stunning silhouettes against the sunrises of winter.

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