My Town, My America: Why Thanksgiving Came Early for Me This Year

11/26/2010 11:22 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Pythia Peay Author of "American Icarus: A Memoir of Father & Country and America on the Couch

Thanksgiving came early for me this year. This past August, to be exact. That's when, after an absence of 27 years, I returned to the Missouri farm where my parents raised four kids, harvested crops and cared for livestock, a mythical place that in our family imagination is a bit like the lost Camelot.

The occasion was my younger brother's wedding. Steven, who'd been working abroad in South Korea, was bringing his Korean fiancée and her parents home to Kansas City to meet his family. After our first introductory lunch, the two families piled into a van for the half-hour drive out to the farm. As we turned off the overpass from I-70, I swear I could hear the clock move back in time.

There was the truck stop, with its memory-rich smell of coffee and cinnamon buns, and the two-lane road that led into town. Time had made few changes to the quiet, unadorned main street I'd cruised as a teenager. Not a minute later, we were through it.

Soon I could feel the countryside begin to throw its mantle of magic over us all: the green pastures; the winding roads vanishing into the horizon; the mist of timelessness that seemed to rise up out of the land itself. When we made the turn that led up the hill to the century-old farmhouse, I caught my breath. My sister reminded me that, as some farmers had said, this site was one of the highest points in the county.

The current owners, Jane and Ron Langevin, were waiting outside to greet us. Standing on the wide front porch, I basked in the panoramic view of woods and pastures. Touring the house, I sat in the country kitchen where my mother had cooked, stood in the bedroom I'd shared with my sister and looked down the hill at the red barn where my dad had stacked bales of hay. As we continued our tour, Ron chatted proudly with Mr. Lee about his service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Though he spoke no English, Mr. Lee seemed to understand; putting his hands together, he bowed and fervently thanked Ron for saving his country. Later, as we were about to leave, I experienced a wave of nostalgia for the farm so intense that I wanted to move back. "How much would you sell this place for?" I asked impulsively. "Not for all the money in the world," said Ron, his face suddenly serious. And I knew just what he meant.

A few days later I got together with some of my old friends. When you've gone through kindergarten to senior year with the same small group in the same one-story building, a bond forms that survives the passage of decades. Among us that night were Democrats, Republicans and maybe even a Tea Party member or two. There were parents of gay children and parents of great-grandchildren, vegans and meat eaters. Politics came up only once, during a lively debate between my old friends Jim, Virginia and me. Jim's a conservative, Virginia and I are liberals, and we've been having the same argument ever since we were 17-year-olds dealing with Vietnam, feminism and the anti-war movement. Yet never once have our conversations turned ugly. "I miss being able to argue with someone this way," said Jim, as the evening was winding down. His words reminded me that I did, too.

My brother's wedding was likewise a charmed harmony of disparate beliefs. It took place in a Korean Catholic Church, originally built by German immigrants in the Kansan town of Lenexa in the 19th century. This was to accommodate the Lees, who'd converted from Buddhism to Catholicism. The arrangement worked fine for Steven, who'd been born Catholic but had tilted Buddhist as an adult, and his wife, In-Yeong, who, while Catholic, also practiced alternative forms of spirituality.

So when I say that Thanksgiving came early for me this year, what I mean is that in returning to my childhood home, I not only reclaimed a part of myself, I rediscovered as well that part of America that has an instinctive talent for being able to come together across differences, and for recombining the odd-fitting pieces of its diverse society into something wholly new, yet wholly American. It is this gift, deriving from that long-ago feast between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, that we celebrate during the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving.

Maybe, in the interest of healing our polarized electorate, it's worth fostering a year-round tradition of "Thanksgiving" moments of across-the-table connection wherever we can find them. Maybe, too, in our search for common ground, we have no further to look than the land beneath our feet. Indeed, gazing out over the farm where I grew up, I couldn't help but think of these famous lines from the Persian poet Rumi: "Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."