Rites Of Comfort

She was returning home from business in New York, and scheduled to fly to San Francisco aboard United Airlines Flight 93, leaving at 8 a.m. But on the night of Sept. 10, Donna Garton couldn't sleep; she'd just gotten the unsettling news that her best friend's breast cancer had spread. So at 5:30 in the morning on September 11 she got dressed and headed to Newark, where she found a seat on a flight leaving at 7 a.m. instead. And that is why, after Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, she was so happy to wake up at all the next morning--even if it was in Denver, on her way home in a rental car with three strangers whose flights had also landed unexpectedly in Lincoln, Neb. Now, two months later, she finds herself staring at the calendar at a word whose simple English constituents suddenly strike her with the force of revelation: Thanks. Giving. Garton, who has a busy career as a development officer at Stanford University, had been planning a dinner just with her husband and three children. But then, she says, "my adorable dad just said, 'This family will stay together for Thanksgiving, and we have an awful lot to be thankful for'"--a sentiment that moved Garton to tears, and also to buy a turkey twice as big as she'd intended, since she's now feeding her parents, who are coming from Colorado, her sister and her nieces as well.

It is surely the most American of holidays, rooted in the stony soil of New England and still sending forth after nearly 400 years exotic blossoms of pageantry and gluttony. Thanksgiving, which raises the humble pursuit of pleasure to the level of religious duty, teaches that we are all after the same things in life: the love of our families, the warmth of friendship, the sweet repose of home and some of that crispy skin just behind the drumstick, guiltily plucked from the ravaged carcass before it disappears under 17 linear feet of aluminum foil. In contrast to Christmas and Independence Day, which celebrate the abstract ideals of salvation and liberty, Thanksgiving is about feeling good, right now.

And right now is when Americans need it. Even with good news from the battlefield last week, in the face of recession and an unprecedented attack on the homeland the nation was gripped by comfort fever. People are eating as if there were no tomorrow, just in case there isn't, reports New York psychologist Karen Zager. Home video rentals are booming. Department stores report increased sales of cozy, overstuffed furniture, apparently to people who never got over believing that the terrorists can't get them if they snuggle all the way down in the cushions (sidebar).

But the quest for comfort has a spiritual dimension as well. Attendance at religious services skyrocketed immediately after September 11, and has since leveled off, although many pastors say at a higher level than a year ago. Like any great tragedy, the terror attacks sent people to church to be reassured that "God can exist in the world and terrible things can happen," as Debra Haffner, who is studying to be a Unitarian minister, puts it. But religious services also offer the soothing rituals of worship. "They give you something to rely on that cannot be taken away or destroyed from outside," says Rabbi Carl Wolkin of Northbrook, Ill., who has been encouraging his congregation to say the Modeh Ani, a Hebrew morning prayer of gratitude for the daily miracle of awakening. Americans are going in record numbers to community meetings, patriotic events and, at least in California, skin-care centers, according to Sonya Dakar, an important Hollywood facialist. "All my clients are re-evaluating priorities," she says. "Selfish goals are not important anymore." And the upshot of all this soul-searching and renunciation is that Dakar is giving a lot more facials because "we want to do something uplifting physically, and that will uplift us spiritually as well."

Above all, Americans are seeking solace where they always have, in communion with their relatives, friends and neighbors. In the aftermath of September 11, political scientist Robert Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone," saw the seeds of "a new kind of America in which we pay attention to each other, we communicate, we hug each other." That impulse plays out in many different, even conflicting, ways. In Brookline, Mass., Barbara Lee, who often travels with her family for Thanksgiving, is staying home this year, feeling the tug of "an incredible nesting instinct" and the need to imprint on her children the smell of a roasting turkey. At the same time, sisters Karen Alphonse and Maureen Alphonse-Charles, who usually do a huge dinner at Maureen's house in Milton, Mass., will be eating at a Boston hotel instead this year, on the theory that the time saved by not having to cook and serve can be better spent "reminiscing, discussing the future and having a real family conversation." And then there is a Washington, D.C., woman, who asked to be identified only as Pat, who sees the terror attacks as "a perfect opportunity to tell the family members we don't like that it's too dangerous for us all to get together"--a message that, naturally, will not go to the relatives on her side of the family.

The locus for all these complicated emotions is Thanksgiving dinner, which, public-health experts worry, may be even more catastrophically nourishing this year than usual. A spokeswoman for the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, which expects to field nearly 100,000 calls before the end of December, says that callers appear to be asking for advice about larger turkeys this year. (One woman, whose designated main course was already at the genetic limitation of the breed, inquired about sewing on extra drumsticks.) Audience ratings for the Food Network, which in the summer had been running about even with a year earlier, shot up by 25 percent in September and October. "People are talking about how hard it is for them not to eat," says another New York mental-health professional, psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld. "Food is soothing and comforting." And that was before Thanksgiving! That means takeout moo shu pork eaten right from the container at the kitchen counter! Imagine how these same people will cope with Thanksgiving dinner, a meal specifically constructed to be soothing and comforting, defined by Julia Child as "turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts and mincemeat pie--exactly what I've eaten for the last umpteen years."

It's worth noting that taken individually, these aren't necessarily anyone's favorite foods (exhibit A: brussels sprouts). "If you asked kids today what their dream meal would be, a lot of them would say sushi," says Michael Batterberry, editor of Food Arts magazine. "But that doesn't mean they want turkey sushi for Thanksgiving." What Child likes about this menu is its "warm and cozy" evocation of her own childhood, which is the same definition of comfort food favored by Julie Mennella, an authority on children's food preferences at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "Comfort food is formed by the associations we make in early childhood," she says--particularly around special occasions such as holidays. That explains why Chinese-Americans may stuff their turkeys with sticky rice, and why Laurie Garrick of Los Angeles fills hers with roasted red peppers and jalapenos, and serves a side dish of green beans with cilantro pesto and pomegranate seeds. Actually, Garrick grew up in Vermont, but that's what her mother made for Thanksgiving. If anything, she says, the events of the last two months will make her cling with even greater tenacity to her mother's sweet-potato-and-pear puree. "I want to take a day to not obsess about the world," she says. "I don't want to feel nervous about anything."

To all the obsessed foodies of the nation, fretting over the choice between Malpeque and bluepoint oysters for the stuffing, the Rev. Ed Miller of St. John's Episcopal Church in McLean, Va., has a word of advice, and it comes from Matthew 6:31-33: "Therefore do not worry, saying 'what shall we eat?' or 'what shall we drink?'... but seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." Americans, Miller says, "have a tendency to think that blessings like prosperity and peace are signs of God's favor, and it is easy for that to turn into a sense of entitlement and complacency." The sentiment is echoed by Prof. Peter Gomes, a Harvard theologian, who observes that "Thanksgiving is not about bounty at all; it is about survival." Gomes likes to remind people that at the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, in 1621, the feast began with five kernels of corn at each setting, a grim memento of the hardships of the previous winter. "Thanksgiving," he says, "is about remembering when you came to the brink and almost fell over it. When you're still standing, that is the time to be truly thankful."

The history of the holiday bears out Gomes. Many cultures, of course, have harvest festivals, and before the Civil War most states had at least occasional Thanksgiving celebrations, not all on the same day. The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in the grim autumn of 1863, in honor not of abundance but of "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife." He was prompted, in part, by an influential author and magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who had campaigned tirelessly for the holiday beginning with the publication of her 1827 novel "Northwood: A Tale of New England." Hale's book fixed the iconography of Thanksgiving--the turkey, the pies, the family gathered at the hearth, all drawn from her own upbringing in early-19th-century New Hampshire--an identification that only grew stronger as the nation became increasingly diverse, urbanized and Western. Historian Matthew Dennis views this as a unifying force in post-bellum America. "People North and South and West could construct for themselves a common history around the settlement of the New World."

And America is not so far, even today, from a time when Thanksgiving had connotations of struggle and privation, as well as abundance. During the second world war few Americans went hungry, but staples such as butter and sugar were rationed, and there was a widespread sense that feasting would be in bad taste. The November 1942 issue of Woman's Home Companion gave a menu for a pared-down Thanksgiving meal, "short on courses [but] long on shining silver and Grandmother's china. No ration on hospitality and grace." Around the same time, New York's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia symbolically knifed a dragon balloon from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, deflating it for donation (along with all the other balloons from the parade, which was canceled) to the government's rubber scrap heap.

The Macy's parade will take place as usual this year, but Haffner, the Unitarian ministry student, won't be watching it from her husband's office. "I love the parade," she says. "But we're not going this year, because I know there's going to be a lot of extra security, and the thought that something bad could happen there would never be very far from my mind." The war on terrorism, while no threat to supplies of butter or rubber, nevertheless exerts its own rigors. The families of troops deployed in Central Asia will cook with one eye on the television set, hardly daring to hope that the fall of Kabul might mean an early end to what had been predicted to be a protracted struggle. Others cope with well-meaning but unsettling advice, like this from Dr. John Rolland, codirector of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago: "If you live in New York, you do have to think about how you're going to get out of there if something happens." If Rolland lived in New York, he'd realize that in the event of catastrophe most of his neighbors wouldn't get any farther out of town than the last stop on their subway line. And in a suburb of Washington, Lynn Kelly will spend Thanksgiving at home with her family while a duffel bag sits in the basement filled with spare clothes, bottled water, maps and flashlight bat-teries. She's already planned a route to her aunt's farm in Pennsylvania along back roads, avoiding the potentially deadly expressway traffic jams. "My parents in Ohio don't understand at all what it's like to be here," she says, "where you see convoys of Army trucks on the highways and military planes overhead constantly. I feel like we're in the cross hairs here."

Her family will be with her for the holidays, the greatest of all comforts. War brings people together; if this one follows the pattern of World War II, says sociologist Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College in Washington state, there will be a short-term drop in the divorce rate and a rise in weddings--followed by a spike in the divorce rate as those hasty and ill-considered marriages get shaken out. Anecdotal evidence gathered in the weeks just after September 11 seemed to show fewer people filing for divorce and fewer women taking refuge in domestic-abuse shelters--although, obviously, anything as extrinsic as a terror attack is unlikely to rescue an already foundering relationship. And in (tentative) answer to the question on everyone's mind, Tamara Kreinin, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., says, "I think we should be anticipating something of a baby boom nine months after September 11."

Snuggle in, then, America; fill your plates and pick away at the leftovers to your heart's content--even if we've won a few battles, the larger struggle goes on. Nobody knows this better than Pat Hymel, who is the principal of an Arlington, Va., elementary school only a few blocks from the Pentagon. Her husband, Bob, a retired Air Force officer, was working there on the morning of September 11 and was killed in the attack--something she found out only at the end of a day spent taking care of the 400 frightened children in her school. This Thanksgiving, there will be no turkey--Bob always cooked it--but she is trying to stay focused on her blessings. And one blessing above all: that Bob, who was gravely wounded when his plane was shot down in Vietnam, recovered and survived to be a father to their daughter, Natalie. "I was lucky," she says simply. "I got him back once, and I had him for 29 years." It is cold comfort, perhaps, and no substitute--there could never be one--for the warm living flesh of a loved one. Yet no sermon ever preached, no hymn ever sung, could say it better.