Sometimes it takes years—decades even—for a lesson to sink in. This epiphany struck me a few years ago at Thanksgiving when I recalled a similar celebration more than thirty years ago.
My brother was 5 years old at the time and saw fit to challenge King, our grandma’s German Shepherd, to a dual. He did so while the rest of us were inside the house putting the last-minute touches on the turkey and also finishing the long process of making homemade tamales, our family’s specialty at Thanksgiving. Tamales took many hands and several days to make, so this once-a-year treat was something we looked forward to for 11 months. It required concentration that was rewarded with heavenly tastes of chilied pork and fluffy steamed masa. As a teenager, I remember being grateful that we celebrated the holiday with this kind of food in my grandmother’s home.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s Quando, Quando, Quando blared out of the kitchen record player and we all sang while we cooked. That is until we heard my brother’s terrifying screams. Turns out King really hated having his tail pulled repeatedly and repaid the action by a swift bite to my brother’s face. The family and neighbors sprung into action. I remember someone grabbing my brother while the rest of us ran around in panic. We didn’t know what to do. I remember an ambulance. And then a call into the hospital that my brother was en route. There were people waiting to help, to sew him back together.
Thoughts of a ruined Thanksgiving stayed with me for decades. I remember being devastated not only that my brother would be scarred for life, but also that all of our hard work was for nothing. The tamales sat unsteamed and uneaten. We spent the day in a lobby of a cold hospital. We were surrounded by strangers. I wanted to forget it all and, for years, tried hard to do so.
As it does, time flew by. I had my own family and I made my own traditions. But still, Thanksgiving left me numb. I never felt joyful and I usually distractedly fumbled through the day. I finally shared my apathy with my sister and confessed that it stemmed from the day our brother was bitten. She stared at me with shock and in disbelief. She, too, was at my grandma’s house that day but remembered most every moment as something wonderful. Yes, wonderful!
WHAT? Were we even talking about the same event?
To her, that day was magical. To her, it was a triumph and easily one of her best Thanksgivings. How could her perspective be so completely opposite of mine? Of course, it was horrible that our beloved baby brother was hurt, she said, but the neighbor who heard his screams got to him immediately. He knew how to help. He drove him to the hospital faster than the ambulance could even get to us. We were surrounded by loving nurses and doctors, one of whom was a renowned plastic surgeon who left his own dinner to stitch up this mischievous child. And, she said, we ate tamales for a week after since we weren’t able to enjoy them on Thanksgiving.
Huh. When I let all that sink in, I was ashamed. My teenage mind never allowed me to see a single positive that day. But, worse, my adult mind perpetuated the misery…year after year. Had I allowed myself a single minute to re-imagine that day—as my sister had done—decades of Thanksgivings would have been filled with something other than dispassion. I could have been doing what I was supposed to be doing all those November days: sharing my gratitude with those I love by repeating a story emphasizing human goodness instead of one that spewed negativity and resentment.
It took a while. But, lesson learned.
AnnaMarie McHargue is the author of People Are Good: 100 True Stories to Restore Your Faith in Humanity and is the CEO of Words With Sisters. She lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and three children.