Thanksgiving brought me an insight and a gift.
Normally, the Galloway family, my brother’s family and mine, gathers on St. Simons Island for a family feast.
In the past, we would gather at our condo in Panama City Beach, the Redneck Riviera, for a family gathering hosted by my dad and mother. Dad would pick up the tab for lunch at a Thanksgiving buffet at Hamilton’s , a local restaurant. It was a hedonistic feast that would jar my senses with the overabundance and consumption of my fellow Redneck Riveraens as we walked down the buffet line and then rolled out.
Then, we would cook in the afternoon for a family gathering, as I showcased my grandmother’s Southern cornbread dressing and my sister-in-laws fabulous sides. In the interest of full disclosure, my culinary work was significantly fueled by a buttery Chardonnay all afternoon, which made for some interesting variations on my Southern Baptist grandmother’s recipe.
It was a good time, but that tradition faded with my parent’s issue with traveling and finally their death.
We transitioned to a new tradition by renting houses on East Beach on St. Simons, a definite shift from the gorgeous emerald water and sugar sand of the Gulf to the darker blue and sand of the Atlantic coast. After several years of us enjoying that new tradition on the coast of Georgia, both my brother and I bought homes on the island. This terrible year of 2020 would be the first time of celebrating this new tradition with us both as residents of Glynn County.
I almost pulled the plug on the deal as we were cautioned about a family gathering in the face of COVID. My wife and sister-in-law championed the gathering as our two sets of children would be coming from Washington D.C., Nashville, and Atlanta. To say that I was nervous is an understatement as I had been isolating probably more than most, as the pandemic gave me an easy excuse for being my native hermit. But as usual, the women led the way. Selah, as Furman Bisher and the Psalmist would say.
We gathered at my brother’s house on East Beach. My nieces engineered an amazing setting outside on a porch with two tables set across from each other, separated by ten feet. The chairs were arranged so that our two families faced each other, across the gulf of separation.
Now, here resides the engineering magic. In the past, we sat at a long table, with the adults at one end, with the kids and significant others filling out the rest of the table. The result was an unintended segregation of the conversation and dialogue, with boring parental talk on one end, and fun-talk popping on the other. I enjoyed those gatherings, to be sure. Seeing the Galloway clan in one place is always a treat with the variety of interests being represented, vociferously so. But it was not something I looked forward to with great expectations.
Enter 2020. Speaking of expectations, I had none. Rather, I was a bit fearful, leaning into the moment with resolve. The menu went pretty much as normal, turkey and ham, delicious sides, a chess pie awaiting, and my provision of grandmother’s dressing sans the Chardonnay inspiration. But the conversation that ensued across the space was unexpected and amazing.
After niceties and congratulations on dishes well done, we settled into a conversation across the two families. Two invaders, otherwise know as cousin spouses, sat with a proper fear/wonder as the Galloway cousins began to spark and flame. The talk literally was electric as the sun went down, and the owls overhead, my new spirit animal, began to hoot.
The topics were far ranging: aging parents; the scary prospects of introducing a love interest to this whack family; what one thinks about death; how one wants to be buried, just to point out the kind of upbeat talk we entertain in a Scots-Irish family. We discussed the phenomena of squatters in beach houses when absent owners vacate. We actually talked about the reasons that my brother and I found our way into the Episcopal Church, with Mitch specifically thankful for a group that allows him freedom of thought.
The real star of the show was Mitchell, our first grandchild for the group who was present at our last gathering in utero. He arrived right after last year’s Thanksgiving. His command of the gathering was impressive while he shared his bounty with the dogs who knew a good thing when they saw it.
The highlight for me was the disclosure by the children in my brother’s family of the “sign” they have developed to note that the story that is being told has been previously related…..many times!. The cousins simply raise their hand with the index finger pointed up, notifying said teller of story that they are repeating a story that is well known. I was on the floor laughing as they demonstrated this signifying through the evening.
Family gatherings are something that we have taken for granted most of our lives. We would gather in large McBrayer gatherings, my maternal grandmother’s family, in West Georgia.
When my brother lived in Omaha, and we lived in Tyler, Texas, we would gather in the summer on the Gulf coast in Florida, giving “the cousins” an opportunity to have time together. Later, my brother’s family moved back to Atlanta and in time, so did we. The result was “the cousins” going to the same school, Holy Innocents Episcopal School, giving them a unique opportunity to grow up together. This made for a closeness that was never carefully engineered but simply happened happily. I know that my parents were thrilled with the resulting proximity.
It struck me at this year’s Thanksgiving gathering how fortunate we are to have these family gatherings. I do not take it for granted as it has not been a huge tradition, certainly not in the Galloway side of the family. But this year, in particular, it struck me how fortunate we are to have the sense of connection. And it’s a connection that is not “forced” where one feels obligated. Rather, there seems to be a deep desire to gather around these holidays to check in with one another.
The need for social distancing prompted a change in the status quo, a reconfiguring of the normal way of seating. And that alteration “changed it up” in terms of how we related, bringing about a freshness to the encounter. If not for COVID, we would have had the old “familiar” way of segregated seating, with the same predictable outcome. That’s an insight, or as we say at Galloway Consulting, a “lesson learned”. I don’t won’t to lose that.
It’s hard for me to be thankful for this pandemic. So much has been disrupted, made more difficult, and actually caused death. But the disruption can bring about, or force innovation and creativity.
I have seen it with the pastors/priests that I coach, finding creative ways of using Zoom and online platforms to gather congregations for worship and study. Every Sunday morning, I spend my time watching a variety of cyber worship offering. Some simply “mail it in” but most have show incredible creativity, actually seizing the opportunity to do a new thing.
I have observed the adoption of telemedicine that has been around for years, but rarely utilized, becoming a lifeline for patients getting care and attention. The health care leaders I coach have been force-marched into a new way of treating patients, made even more difficult by the urgent treatment of COVID patients.
I have been a part of an organization, EQ-HR, that exclusively had used expensive and involved gatherings in remote venues to deliver its core message of Emotional Intelligence. COVID forced us to get innovative, producing a new way to gather via a webinar that is at once more convenient and more effective. This has produced a change in delivery that will live on beyond the pandemic, a change that had been resisted by folks who would say “that’s the way we always have done it!”
We all hope to go back to a point where we can gather without fear and anxiety. If you live South of God, you long to be able to give one of those traditional hugs, or as one my favorite Southside folks says, “hug your neck”…..which has always been a curious saying to me anatomically.
We all pray for a vaccine that will give us, return to us, the gift of gathering. But, did we learn some things to take with us into the future? Are there gifts to garner as we move forward?
I know that next Thanksgiving, we Galloways will be using what we learned from this year. My hunch is that we will take the new table configuration inside, and be together in a new way that promotes our gathering in a fresh way.
What have you learned from COVID? What blessing did you wrestle from this pandemic that you will not let go of as we emerge? What “lesson learned” have you received from this crazy time?
An organizational development colleague of mine re-minds me, every so often, of a favorite saying: All of get the experience; some of us get the lesson.
Which one are you? Good news is: it’s not too late. What have you learned about yourself, about life? Why not take a proverbial “pause” and write down some notes as to what gift you have received from this rather odd gift-giver. Blessings.