Thanksgiving Day Repainted

Rebecca Stanek/Flickr
Rebecca Stanek/Flickr


I’ve been trying to imagine Norman Rockwell trying to paint the modern American family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table. For four decades Rockwell was the custodian of our domestic mythology, mainly with his covers for The Saturday Evening Post, which fixed in our collective memory the sacramental moments of small-town life—Bobby’s first haircut, Barb’s first prom—and its supporting cast of butchers, bakers, teachers, preachers, judges, cops, and other kindly bulwarks of stability. Rockwell’s family came in a standard package: Granny and Gramps, Mom and Dad, children and grandchildren, uncle and aunt, and a dog that looked like a dog. The children often had freckles. (Whatever became of freckles?) Everyone was happy. No issues.

Today no magazine cover would be wide enough for Rockwell. He would need a Chinese scroll to accommodate the disparate crowd assembled to eat turkey or some dietetically certified substitute: single moms, single dads, partners, companions, half brothers, half sisters, stepchildren, ex-spouses, live-ins, live-outs, in-laws, outlaws, and dogs of rarefied lineage. Only an artist from a post-Rockwell school of painting could hope to catch the overlapping fluidities of the modern American tribe. My candidate would be John Baldessari, the 80-year-old pioneer of conceptualism. Last year, reviewing a Baldessari retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the critic Jerry Saltz noted that the artist’s work usually incorporates a photo or a grid of grainy black-and-white pictures. “After 1980, when he went from small and uncertain to big, clunky, and fragmented, the results get formulaic and optically awkward, involving photographs, dots of color over faces, cutout shapes, and irregularly hung framed pictures.” That’s the modern extended American family: big, clunky, fragmented, optically awkward, irregular. But somehow it works.

My idea of Thanksgiving wasn’t instilled by an artist. That happened on a plane ride over Iowa, many Novembers ago. My wife and I were flying to Cedar Rapids to spend the holiday with her parents. Propeller planes then flew low over America, and around midday I noticed a recurring pattern on the snow-covered landscape below. Cars and pickup trucks, presumably loaded with husbands and wives and their kids, kept turning off the arrow-straight county roads and into the yard of the ancestral farmhouse—the one that had a barn. America was coming home. This year the families coming home will be differently configured, more Baldessari than Rockwell. But nothing will change the event itself. Thanks are given for the bounty of the earth, blessings asked for the nation and its freedoms. The baby born since the last Thanksgiving is shown off and declared the most beautiful baby ever. A meal is shared, a family’s fabric stitched back together for a few hours. Then, suddenly, an invisible switch is thrown, terminating words spoken—“Get your coat,” “When’s the next train?”—and once again the best of holidays has come and gone.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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