11/23/2006 12:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thankfulness Without Prayer

I'll be barbecuing a turkey on Thanksgiving, outdoors, California-style. My wife's extended family throughout the Los Angeles region will come to our house for the feast. I'm looking forward to it. We're all basically healthy this year, and there will be plenty of children filling the house (and the backyard) with gaiety. The one sad note this year is that one cousin won't be attending--he's back in drug rehab. Thus his new baby won't be coming, nor will his girlfriend, nor will his parents, the crazy life-of-the-party aunt and her ever-genial, ever-forgiving husband.

Reflecting on that group, I realize that the life I now lead in some ways resembles a SoCal cliché: the setting is a tract home in the burbs; the family gathering is multiracial; some of the younger members sport piercings, tattoos, and a few fake breasts; the meal leans vegetarian; the men cook, clean, and parent, too; and the proceedings are secular. While we will be expressing our thankfulness to each other in various ways, we probably won't be bowing our heads in prayer.

As a parent of two young kids, I worry about those atmospherics, the loosey-goosey southern California permissiveness that sometimes manifests into personal dysfunction. Sometimes I think it would be so much easier if we could simply invoke the fear of God or the fear of corporeal punishment in order to keep our kids on the straight and narrow. But I just can't do that.

I think back to the Thanksgiving celebrations of my childhood in Iowa. We would repair to one of the family farms on either my mother's side or my father's side. The children played in the barn or maybe rode a pony, or a sheep. The men killed the food. The women did all the baking, cooking, serving, and cleaning. I remember pumping the water deep out of the ground, up and down by hand, until it gushed forth clear, cold and fresh. At the dinner, gathered around the table, we bowed our heads in solemn prayer. After dinner, while the women cleaned up, the men all fell asleep in the living room, heads tilted uniformly backward in what seemed to be a collective snoring competition. At bedtime, we dropped to our knees by the side of the beds, folded our hands in a tented fashion, and prayed to God that we be allowed to live through the night.

Small wonder that I had a hard time sleeping.

My family farm childhood Thanksgivings should provide a wellspring of romantic Midwestern memories, a lived version of the American pastoral idyll, evoking nostalgia for homespun, rugged, and reverential times. But that's not exactly how I remember them.

Sitting there awake in bed, I remember my grandfather tip-toeing down the creaky stairway steps, after everyone had apparently fallen asleep, in order to sneak out to do something. During the day, we kids would sometimes ask about why grandpa's shoes curled up at the end. Years later we would learn that he had lost his toes to frostbite, all amputated because he had fallen down asleep in the snow, face down and dead drunk.

Those family farms featured a lot of alcoholism, both wet and dry versions. I attribute a lot of it to the isolation, frustration, and patriarchy of rural farm life back then--but also to the inherent violence of the situation, which involved killing and eating animals that you knew intimately, almost as family members, from their birth onward. To this day, I still can't and won't serve ham at our Thanksgiving gathering, because as a boy I knew too well the intelligence of pigs and hogs--and helped birth them, too.

The religious sanctimony blessing the whole affair was just that: a cover for the violence, alcoholism, and patriarchy that lurked just beneath and behind the red barn paint. The violence, by the way, didn't stop at the barn gate or the corral fence. It came inside the house, too. If you become accustomed to using a leather whip to whip a horse, using a leather belt to whip your wife or your kids into compliance doesn't seem like a qualitatively different act, except that one is outdoors and one is indoors.

So maybe you can see why I can't easily bow my head in prayer this Thanksgiving, though I will be filled with much gratitude. I vastly prefer my current California existence to my Iowa past.