Notes From My Knapsack 11-19-15
Empty chairs at empty tables
One of the most affecting numbers in a very emotional musical, "Les Miserables," is sung after a battle is over, by a survivor who finds himself back in the wreckage of a cheerful place he once knew.
Marius sings "There's a grief that can't be spoken; there's a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables - now my friends are dead and gone."
On Thanksgiving Day there are always homes and families who face this challenge. Sometimes it's literally a physical challenge, because of the geography of the dining room, or the particular arrangement of the people involved.
Someone is not there this year. Perhaps someone is simply on the road, off and away, and the meal is different but may return to the familiar next year. Who knows?
More often, someone is gone. A permanent move, a death, whatever the loss, it's a major jolt at those particular moments of household ritual. A position around the table is not occupied, and everyone else in one way or another has to shift.
Those shifts are physical, maybe you just scoot chairs around a little closer to fill the gap. And they are powerfully emotional, when the absence is felt and reinforced by those little acts that evoke the person not there. They are also ripples that wash through families, as relationships shift and splash up against each other.
Someone different roasts the turkey, another family member brings the pie, it's a different friend who mulls the cider . . . or the cider isn't there this year.
Of the usual circle around the table, there might be one in the hospital, someone moved to a nursing home, even somebody in jail. But more often, the sense of loss is because, inevitably, in any family over time, a loved one has died.
My recommendation to anyone when this subject comes up is to acknowledge it. Don't try to gloss over the absence, to pretend they were never there, not talking about that missing person. Prayer is a perfect platform for an out-loud acknowledgment of loss and sorrow, to say that there's someone we miss from this table this year.
Other rituals or intentional acts can fill that same gap; a candle on the table, a flower in a vase, a card at a place setting. I don't know that I would recommend a full place setting and empty chair, but for some families, that's almost necessary at least the first year, because the loss is felt so strongly there's no way around making that absence visible.
It's a different observance, but I do think of the Jewish traditions around Passover, another table-centered annual tradition. For many families, part of the meal is to have a chair in the room, if not full place setting at the table, called Elijah's chair. And in the Passover seder, there's a point where it's remembered that Elijah has promised to return, and a door is opened, and there's a moment.
My prayers are with everyone who will be having "a moment" in their hearts this Thanksgiving Day.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has been converted to roasted Brussels sprouts late in life. Tell him about your holiday traditions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.