AMAC Exclusive – By – Eleanor Vaughn
Thanksgiving Day is here. As the leaves fall and the days get shorter, my thoughts turn to Norman Rockwell. It may be, in large part, because of “Freedom from Want,” his famous depiction of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, with a grandmotherly woman setting a golden-brown turkey in front of her gathered family. But that’s not the only connection between artist and holiday.
Like Thanksgiving, Rockwell is distinctively American. Born in 1894, the painter became famous for the Saturday Evening Post covers he created. His career spanned from the 30s to the 70s, often dealing with the concerns of the day. Yet his work was always hopeful. In turns heartfelt and funny, his art is grounded in a strong sense of reality: the reality of life in America. Of his own artwork he said “I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
Although “Freedom from Want” is the traditional, ideal image of Thanksgiving, another Rockwell work called “Saying Grace” can show us a lot about Thanksgiving, and ourselves. Though less famous, this work has recently gained recognition for its evocative depiction of an old woman and a young boy praying over their meal in a crowded diner, where all the other patrons, mustachioed and cigarette-smoking men, look on with curiosity. It’s a quiet scene of everyday life—it appeared on the 1951 Thanksgiving issue of the Saturday Evening Post but otherwise isn’t overtly holiday-themed—that nevertheless reveals something noteworthy and special.
The old woman and the young boy are real people, not idealized figures. They have a little pile of luggage next to their chairs, and coats draped on their seats. Their faith does not put them above the ordinary concerns of this earth. Even then, as now, there is something nerve-wracking and a little awkward about public displays of faith, whatever that faith might be. Even though the woman and the boy are not reacting to the stares of the men around them, they have drawn away from the rest of the room, as if to give themselves some measure of privacy while they pray.
The eye of the viewer, upon looking at the painting, is not immediately drawn to the moment of prayer. Instead, the first thing we notice are the two young men sitting across from them, the only figures in the painting whose faces are entirely visible. We notice the elegant condiment containers, even the urban setting outside the window. Only then do we see the real action of the painting, tucked away in a small piece of the frame.
The men around the woman and the boy are not hostile to their display of faith—they look on with curiosity, not scorn. The image is a microcosm of American life, with people from different walks of life sharing space and, in some cases, a table. Two men, one smoking and one reading a paper, sit at the same table as the woman and the boy. They are closest to them, and the most openly curious, one leaning a little away and one peering closer.
Yet the extraordinary hides in this ordinary scene. The image is a moment in time when this busy, crowded restaurant has paused because of a simple act of faith. For a little while, the eating and talking have stopped—though the curious looks and casual smoking make it clear that this is not an earth-shattering revelation for the patrons of the diner. Rather, it is something just as precious: a moment of peace. Time to pause, to acknowledge in some small way something beyond the concerns of busy lives, even for just a moment.
It is thanksgiving.
While the image does not depict the holiday meal that we all recognize, “Saying Grace” shows us an act of thanksgiving—of giving thanks. And that is the real heart of Thanksgiving in America. The holiday isn’t about the meal, however delicious, or the football, however exciting, or the Macy’s parade, however enjoyable. It’s about the chance, whatever else we do this day, wherever we are and whoever we’re with, to stop and give thanks.
It’s not the easiest thing to do. Sometimes it feels hard to find things to be thankful for at all, and even when we’re showered with blessings, it’s always easier to remember the little annoyances. But most of us are lucky enough to have a whole day to try giving thanks, and we ought to use it, since it’s there. Because it’s good to pause our crazy lives and thank God. It teaches us to be humble, and helps us to be content. It gives us time to truly appreciate the gift of family and friends. When we focus on what we have, here and now, it makes some of those things we don’t have seem a little less important.
And it’s not just good for ourselves, although it certainly does us good not to complain all the time, but for everybody around us. We don’t have to be loud, or showy, or ostentatious. We don’t even need to make a single sound. But if we bow our heads, and close our eyes, and give thanks, people might just notice and be drawn in to give thanks themselves.
So, this Thanksgiving, when we’re stressing and panicking to make our Thanksgiving gathering measure up to the picture of perfection we have in our heads, we should remember “Saying Grace.” Remember that moment of calm thanksgiving in a crowded, busy world. Remember the ordinariness of the scene made extraordinary by bowing one’s head and giving thanks to God. And remember that it’s not a competition. Thanksgiving in America isn’t something you win or lose—it’s something you celebrate.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.
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