A Thanksgiving Children’s Book for Weary, Grieving Hearts

COVID-weariness is a thing this Thanksgiving.

In my little corner of the world it shows itself on the faces of parents, children and teachers navigating the yo-yo of school closures and re-openings as we monitor the number of active COVID-19 cases in our county, our valley and our state.

It surfaces in my father’s voice on the phone, in the attempted cheerfulness of the brother and sister on my Google Meet screen (I teach them at church but we hadn’t been together for a few weeks) and especially in the choked-up conversation I had with a dear friend whose mother passed away last summer and whose father will be alone in a care facility this Thanksgiving.

It’s in my own weary soul.

“You have to feel your feelings,” I reminded a friend when she shared a horrendous story of pain while deflecting any acknowledgement that what she was experiencing was hard.

“I needed to hear that,” she told me later.

She’d forgotten that Jesus himself showed anger and grief and she thought she had to cover hers up.

Later, when I met with first graders about to have their Thanksgiving break, I thought about all the changes happening in their lives, and I reached for a book I hadn’t read in years.

I hope you can find a copy of Michael J. Rosen’s A Thanksgiving Wish. This luminous children’s book (with incredible illustrations by award-winning painter John Thompson) has the power to release the tears we’ve kept locked within while reminding us all what true resilience is.

It’s not pretending you aren’t hurting; it’s doing the next right thing in love.

A Thanksgiving Wish is a stretch for first graders (most remain riveted even though it’s a bit long for them); the narrative works best with children a bit older, and with adults of any age.

The book was published in 1999, but its illustrations show a family straight out of the seventies, beginning with the opening page when Amanda, the youngest in the family and the story’s main character, leaves with her family in an old-school station wagon to begin a drive across three states. They will meet up with her aunts, uncles and cousins at the home of their grandmother for a Thanksgiving visit.

Bubbe is beautiful, with the kind of smile that can only be inspired by love. Her backstory is flawlessly revealed in snippets of Amanda’s memory: Bubbe loved Chanukah, Passover and the other Jewish holidays and would visit family members throughout the year for them.

But every year for as long as anyone, even Amanda’s mother, could remember, Bubbe had prepared the same meal for the families who returned to her home for Thanksgiving.

Bubbe’s cooking may inspire COVID-weary cooks to create new memories.

She prepares a dish each day in the month of November in order to be ready for the big day: maple applesauce, stuffing from her own homemade challah, snowflake rolls and a turkey so big she has to recruit the neighbor’s son to get it in and out of the oven.

Bubbe makes room at three tables shoved together not only for the families that join her each year, but for anyone she learns about with no place to go for Thanksgiving.

But Amanda’s favorite part of the holiday is when her grandmother tucks her in at night, holding three wishbones in the palm of her hand and asking Amanda to choose one to match the size of the wish in her heart.

Bubbe, we learn, saves wishbones from every bird she cooks all year long: big tom turkey wishbones, medium wishbones from roasting chickens and tiny wishbones from game hens. She picks them clean, washes them and lines them up to try on the curtain rod above her kitchen window.

Every Thanksgiving Bubbe has saved enough wishbones so that each of her grandchildren can break one with her every night of their visit. Their wishes may come true if they don’t share them with anyone.

But when the story shifts to the present, we learn that Bubbe has died during the past year, “as unexpectedly as anything you want to live forever dies.”

Amanda’s family has moved to an old home in a new town. In Bubbe’s absence, her family is hosting Thanksgiving this year and the aunts, uncles and cousins will be arriving the next day to share this Thanksgiving with Amanda, her parents and two older sisters.

Amanda suddenly feels sad as she begins to miss her grandmother.

Her father explains how natural it is to feel sad in these circumstances. He gives her a perfect description of grief, which anyone who’s ever experienced the loss of a loved one will recognize.

You never stop missing someone, Mandi,” her father said one night as he tucked her into bed. “You sort of forget how much you miss them until something–like Thanksgiving–reminds you again. And then it’s missing them, and it’s sadness all over again, until some other happier thing–like the fact that all your cousins are coming tomorrow–makes you forget again.”

The day before Thanksgiving the family, each one missing Bubbe, undertakes something big. Amanda’s mother locates Bubbe’s recipe file and they decide to make all of Bubbe’s traditional dishes for the family’s first Thanksgiving without her.

It’s a lot of work, but doing something moves healing forward.

Thanksgiving turns out to be rainy and dark, and when Aunt Honey’s family arrives, and then Aunt Sonny’s, the kitchen whirrs with activity while damp clothes tumble in the dryer and the uncles turn on the television.

Just when all is ablur with busy-ness, the power goes out. No lights, no kitchen appliances, no TV, no dryer for damp clothes. Aunt Honey peers outside and notices that all the other houses still have lights.

I love sharing this part with children. “Every good story has sad parts and problem parts,” I remind them. If we want to make our lives a good story, you can bet that story will be about the problems we had and what we chose to do about them.

In this story, Dad is the first to spring into action.

“I’ll get candles,” he says.

He returns with a grim report: with all the appliances in the house on at once, they’ve blown a fuse and won’t be able to replace it until the hardware store opens on Friday.

Every family has at least one person who immediately goes to a dark place when trouble strikes, and in this case it’s Aunt Sonny, who, noting the raw turkey, hard potatoes and runny pies, moans, “Oh, this is just great!” before anyone can figure out what to do next.

That’s when there’s a knock on the door.

It’s Mrs. Yee, a neighbor who has seen their darkened house and shows up with a flashlight.

Her generosity knows no bounds as she invites her new neighbors to cook in her kitchen, which turns out to be too limited but she perseveres until she’s figured out what other families in the neighborhood might be available to help the newcomers complete their Thanksgiving meal.

Rosen leads us through one problem after another.

What a great way to discuss the challenges we’ve all faced since the pandemic we never expected happened to us!

Do we want to throw up our hands as Aunt Sonny tends to do, or look for little victories, like Aunt Honey? What can we learn from Mrs. Yee, whose grandchildren are in Washington D.C. while she lives alone?

After much struggle, the meal finally comes together. The family invites Mrs. Yee to join them and everyone is too tired and hungry to compare the food to their memories of Bubbe’s cooking.

But when everyone is finally leaning back in their chairs, fully satisfied, Amanda begins to cry.

She has just noticed the wishbone sitting alone on a plate and a wave of grief overpowers her.

There is only one wishbone. “No one saved them up for all us little kids.”

Trying their best to help, everyone in the family agrees that as the youngest, the one who had fewer wishbones in her life than anyone else, Amanda should be the one to make the only wish this year.

She knows this is kind, but Amanda still can’t control her tears.

Finally she collects herself enough to explain why to her helpless family.

But there’s no grandma to wish with.

Everyone is silent for a moment: not just the family in the book, but the reader and anyone listening along.

We recognize grief as the unexpected moment when you remember just how much you miss someone, exactly as Amanda’s father had described it earlier in the story.

I will not spoil this book’s beautiful resolution. You simply must read it for yourself, preferably with someone you love.

A Thanksgiving Wish heals weariness with hope. It can release tears long locked within.

Through an act of sheer generosity, Amanda learns to wish, not for something she can’t have, but for something that she can. Though she keeps her wish a secret, by the story’s end we have a pretty good guess what it was.

A Thanksgiving Wish reminds us of what is possible even in the darkest of times.

This Thanksgiving may find us in places more difficult than ever for holiday wishes to come true.

Perhaps we, too, have lost a loved one in the past year, or travel restrictions may be preventing us from having everyone we want at our table.

What’s the next right thing waiting for each of us to do?

Is it to make the favorite dish for those who are present for this year’s dinner? To be the neighbor who offers help? The father who comforts his hurting child by letting her know the blues of grief are normal? The mother who knows when to reveal a secret that helps her family heal?

Take it to heart and enflesh your love by putting it into action this Thanksgiving.

It’s a lesson I find to be true every time I put it to the test since I read Dr. Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism years ago: Feelings change when you change what you do.

This Thanksgiving, let it be okay to feel your feelings.

Then do the next right thing for those closest to you, whoever they are.

Your action may just heal your own COVID-weary soul at the very same time.

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Related post: Grow Your Family’s Gratitude with The Secret of Saying Thanks.

Gerry Brooks has been helping educators keep their sense of humor for years. Need a laugh? Check out his video, Thanksgiving/Black Friday Covid Restrictions.

Image by Lolame from Pixabay. Photos from A Thanksgiving Wish are my own.

2 thoughts on “A Thanksgiving Children’s Book for Weary, Grieving Hearts

  1. Brian, thank you so much. Sure triggered memories for me as well. So many of the children I read the book to had never heard of a wishbone. My grandma was the one who shared them with me.

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