COLUMN -- Where liberty and thanksgiving intersectPosted by Craig Westover | 6:21 AM |
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
"Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn't be here, and we wouldn't be eating it, if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you, Lord, just the same for the food we're about to eat. Amen."
Not what you'd call a traditional Thanksgiving prayer.
If you find yourself a little football weary over the weekend, the 1965 Universal film "Shenandoah" is a good Thanksgiving rent. Pure melodrama, it's a full fare of individualism with a side dish of overcoming tragedy. The Good Lord gets his due in a tearjerker ending that captures the essence of "thanksgiving."
The perfunctory prayer is the dinner grace of a Virginia widower, Charlie Anderson, honoring his wife's request that he raise their children as good Christians – a "thorny task" that he doesn't feel quite up to, but he's trying. He's also doing his damndest to keep his Virginia family untouched by the carnage of the Civil War.
"They on our land?" asks Anderson (played by Jimmy Stewart at his curmudgeonly best) as cannons thunder. Told not yet, he says, "Then it doesn't concern us, does it?"
"Shenandoah" was released when, much like today, war was just beginning to threaten people's personal landscapes. Like the film's characters, many struggled with duty to God, state and family.
"Virginia needs all her sons, Mr. Anderson," a confederate colonel tells Stewart.
"That might be so, Johnson," says a gruff Anderson. "But these are my sons. They don't belong to the state. When they were babies, I never saw the state coming around with a spare teat! We never asked anything of the state and never expected anything. We do our own living and thanks to no man for the right."
"Shenandoah" is ripe with great libertarian lines. When a gang of federal agents descend on the Anderson farm to "purchase" some horses, Stewart serves up a concise definition of "confiscate": "stealing." The feds, somewhat worse for wear, depart the Anderson farm sans horses.
Although he keeps the feds, and the confeds, from the door, Anderson can't keep the war away. Mistaken for a Confederate, his 16-year-old son is taken by Union soldiers.
"Now it concerns us," Stewart growls. "I don't know how these people dare take a son of mine," he says, expressing the bafflement of one who can't conceive by what right one injects himself in the affairs of another. "I catch up to them, it's going to be a terrible thing to behold," he promises.
But the terrible end of his quest for "the boy" lies in the tragedies inflicted on his family. Like the Biblical Job, despite personal suffering, Anderson holds to his conception of a righteous life. He challenges his fate with a question.
"I knew we weren't liable to find him," he says, making the decision to quit his search. "But somehow I just had to try. And if we don't try, we don't do. And if we don't do, why are we here on this Earth?"
Back on the farm, at a table set with empty places for missing family members, Stewart's Anderson breaks down reciting grace. He heads for the one secure point in his world (cue hankies).
"There's not much I can tell you about this war," he says, standing beside his wife's grave. "It's like all wars, I guess. The undertakers are winning. And the politicians who talk about the glory of it. And the old men who talk about the need of it. And the soldiers, well, they just want to go home. … I wish I could just know what you're thinking about it all, Martha." Church bells ring in the distance. "You never give up, do you?" he says.
His old feisty self, Anderson rallies his family for Sunday services. They slide into their customary pew, but a different family from the one that rode out in quest of the boy. As the congregation rises in a chorus of "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow," in a movie moment, his lost son, balanced on a crutch, stumbles into the church and into his father's arms. Anderson, for the first time, sings the words of a hymn.
Isn't that what Thanksgiving is all about? We try our best. If we don't try we don't do. We plow, sow, harvest and cook and pause to remember from Whom all blessings flow.
Update: Heading to Iowa this weekend, not to start a presidential exploratory committee but to pick up daughter, Justice is Blonde, for the Thanksgiving weekend. To each wishes for a Thanksgiving as it was meant to be.