Leftovers: Rockwell, Roosevelt, and Fauci

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Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. There’s no expectation of gifts, and notions of gratitude and thanks are the message du jour. It was always the first time the girls came home during their pre-pandemic college years, and not least of all, Thanksgiving is its own food group.

But this year, with our damned-if-we-do-and-damned-if-we-don’t conundrum, my favorite holiday is already leaving a bad taste in my mouth. 

What I’m really struggling with is the idea of collateral damage as it relates to the dangers of gathering for this beloved holiday. And unless you’re under a rock, you’re struggling with it too.

Collateral damage also plays out in politics, especially when people stray from checking boxes up and down the same column on their ballot. If insurance companies had to pay out on this past election, many Americans who colored outside the lines would be millionaires. 

The Pentagon views collateral damage as a tidy way to say “calculated risk” when admitting that along with the arm of a terrorist cell, they blew up a village of innocent people. Therapists mention it when explaining the outcome of pain and confusion heaped on children during a nasty divorce. That same therapist will explain it’s also what happens to the adults when friends inevitably choose sides. Only one of them will end up sitting at home with the kids on Superbowl Sunday because they weren’t invited to the party they’ve attended for years. 

On top of the collateral damage COVID-19 potentially brings to Thanksgiving 2020, many of us struggle otherwise, blaming Norman Rockwell for his fabulously infuriating Saturday Evening Post “Freedom from Want” illustration. 

Seriously, whose family really looks like that group huddled around a turkey appearing to slide right off mother’s platter? 

The lucky among us have shared loving memories, but we also have to set aside smoldering dynamics and Shakespearean grudges to enjoy the intent of the day. It reminds me of an air-brushed swimsuit model on a pre-woke Sports Illustrated cover. Everything looks (thus we think we are expected to be) just a little too perfect.

During World War II, Rockwell created a series of images for the Saturday Evening Post based on President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1943 speech dedicated to the Four Freedoms. In addition to freedom from want, the speech highlighted freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear. 

Lofty, noble, and seemingly well intended for the day, Roosevelt was obviously referring to white Americans facing the axis of evil. After all, it was 1943. The speech and Rockwell’s subsequent depictions still leave many aching for the would-ofs, could-ofs, and should-ofs. Take heart because when pondering how exclusive of average Americans the speech was, it almost feels good not to look like Rockwell’s paintings. 

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.”

If “Freedom from Want” were to be redone today, it would feature a group resembling a United National General Assembly meeting or Sunday worship at the all-inclusive Universal Unitarian Church. Of course, they’d be sitting 6 feet apart, wearing masks, and not sampling Aunt Dora’s orange cranberry pound cake off someone else’s fork. Nothing really looks like it’s “supposed to,” regardless of whom Roosevelt was talking about, what Rockwell was putting to his canvas, or how strongly Dr. Anthony Fauci cautions the country. 

So, this brings me back to my own Thanksgiving collateral damage conundrum. Does my dad, still and forever stinging from the relatively recent loss of my mom, The Betty, come to Maine? Or does he stay where he is, alone in Florida? 

Does my younger daughter come home from Massachusetts to be with him and more selfishly, me? Known to our family as Betty Jr., my daughter is a therapist now telehealthing full-time with what I suspect is a caseload of people tormented by these same questions. Always good at compartmentalizing issues, I worry about how my daughter’s profession impacts her own wellness. 

Also, do I go to California to see Number One over the Christmas holiday? Can I justify it by saying I could get hit by a bus tomorrow? Do I say I could unwillingly spread COVID-19 to Bob the seafood guy at Shaw’s as easy as I could to the flight attendant on a Spirit jet? Worried about Number One even more than my youngest, how do I rationalize not going? 

Both my daughters and my dad are saying, “It’s really up to you,” but I’m down to the wire if I want to order a fresh turkey. Never great at decision making, the responsibility is enormous.

Not looking for a funhouse mirror of Rockwell’s holiday cover, I’m yearning to hear football blasting, to smell roasted turkey wafting, to watch my daughter laughing with my dad, and to know that my definition of Thanksgiving is safe. 

Following the updated public health guidelines, I’m grateful the airlines are honoring last-minute cancellations, and that stuffing freezes well. It’ll still be my favorite holiday next year, no matter who’s there, how it looks, or what anyone says. 

Luckily there’s no damage, collateral or otherwise, in thinking like that.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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