At the beginning of a new year, it is customary to look forward, casting off the disappointments and challenges of the previous year in favor of goals and resolutions for the days ahead. But 2020 was such an extraordinary year that I find myself still reflecting on the many losses we experienced collectively, and on the deliberate practice of gratitude I decided to undertake throughout this past holiday season as a way to forge ahead with purpose and hope for the future.

Of course, there are numerous cultural and religious traditions built around routines of ceremonial thankfulness in November and December. But I’m talking about something more intentional, a deliberate appreciation of human kindness that took on even greater resonance in the past year of grief and struggles.

When I was eight years old, my parents separated and, after weeks of nomadic “visits” to friends and neighbors who could host us for a few days at a time, my mother moved with her four young children into a studio apartment. It was late fall. As the holidays approached, our apartment soon filled with donated bunk beds, a worn couch, mismatched sheets and towels, hand-me-down clothes. The kindness of strangers was humbling. We dared not hope for the kind of Thanksgiving feast to which we previously had been accustomed because the frugality required to survive on food stamps would not permit such indulgences.

Fortunately, a beloved relative stepped forward to provide a turkey. And my mother stretched our meager resources to create some semblance of a holiday menu. It wouldn’t be fancy, but there would be a Thanksgiving dinner.

So, it was a great surprise when, on the day before Thanksgiving, our new apartment’s buzzer rang. Local firefighters had received information about our family’s circumstances and stopped by to drop off a frozen turkey and a bag full of fixings: canned cranberry sauce, a sack of white potatoes, dinner rolls, and a pumpkin pie. Hooray! We would have a celebratory feast after all.

About an hour later, the buzzer unexpectedly sounded again. This time, it was neighborhood friends bearing a(nother) frozen turkey and a bag full of all the side dishes we would need for a holiday dinner. We laughed with joy. Three Thanksgiving dinners? What good fortune!

We scarcely had time to put away this third unexpected bounty when—you guessed it: the buzzer sounded again. This time, representatives from a local nonprofit organization came to bring us all the food our family would need for … a fourth Thanksgiving meal.

Now, this may sound like the plot of a sitcom but indeed it presented quite a predicament. The tiny refrigerator in our efficiency kitchen did not have a freezer that could hold a frozen turkey. So, my mother got to work. She cooked all four turkeys in two days and shaved off every scrap of meat before using the bones to make broth. Not only did we eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day, we also over the next few weeks ate turkey sandwiches, turkey tetrazzini, turkey hash, turkey chili, turkey rice casserole, and turkey soup.

That turkey soup is still legendary in our family. All these years later, what at the time felt like a burden of excess to four children, now in retrospect brings a tear to my eye. Because what I feel today is not aggravation about the monotony of endless turkey leftovers. It is the acute pang of gratitude for those kind people who saw we were in need and opened their hearts with kindness.

I’ve had numerous occasions over the past year to feel similar pangs of tear-inducing gratitude. To members of the Mac family who welcomed my spouse and me with affection and generosity over a summer when so many were experiencing pain and grief. To our students who studiously upheld all the COVID-19 precautions required by our college’s Community Commitment and successfully reduced the risks of viral spread. To faculty and staff who transformed every aspect of our programs to deliver a Mac experience under the most challenging of circumstances. And to our alumni, the largest branch of the Mac family tree, who have sustained us with gifts of time, talent, and treasure despite the many challenges they face in their own communities.

Last year brought great difficulties, and more sorrow than some of us thought we could hold. It also brought extraordinary displays of heroism, courage, and fortitude. Did we know we were capable of withstanding such tests of our character and compassion? Perhaps not. But we rose to the challenges and can look ahead with great optimism, because the many acts of kindness and solidarity we experienced in 2020 will sustain us as we build a new and better version of normal.

As we embark on this new year that promises new beginnings, I hope we each can find ways to practice deliberate gratitude for overcoming great difficulties together.

Dr. Suzanne Rivera is president of Macalester College.

January 25 2021

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