I find that Thanksgiving is a good inflection point in the year, marking the start of the holiday season and year-end frenzy that defines December. In these moments of calm I reflect on questions like, How have I lived my values this year? Have I been intentional with the time and energy I’ve expended? What am I doing to share my gratitude for the good fortune I’ve had with others?
In the device-obsessed world my two boys live in, I use this time of year to find ways to instill a spirit of gratitude and service in them. I was fortunate that opportunities to spend time in service of others came about this past weekend.
We started Saturday with a morning yard cleanup project with our Cub Scout Pack and saw how quickly a dozen kids and their parents could transform the lawns of a few elderly residents in our town. Later that day my sons joined me for a memorial service for a parishioner in our church, Lew.
During the later stages of Lew’s cancer this past summer, members of our church organized meals to be brought to him and his wife Bobbie. My boys reluctantly joined me on the date of our meal delivery, talking of the many other things they’d much rather be doing that afternoon. Once we walked into the apartment Lew's face lit up. He struggled to sit a little taller in his hospital bed, engaging my boys with questions about their interests. Despite his suffering, Lew wanted to make sure my boys feel at ease, something I will never forget. Their presence in Lew’s living room eased his suffering for a few moments, and their presence at Lew's service on Saturday touched his wife’s heart.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
While performing these acts of service with my kids in tow, it was not lost on me who I learned this from. As a child I joined my mom on countless trips to Safeway with an older resident in Arlington, helped my mom shop for refugees of the Vietnam War resettling to the US, and later helped her stuff Project Graduation goodie bags at the local Y.
It was these thoughts of my mom that compelled me to take the boys to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as a capstone to our Saturday together. My mom loved Mr. Rogers. I was partial to the livelier Sesame Street, but like every other child of the 70’s knew Mr. Rogers, his neighborhood and the many characters in it.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a perfect blend of nostalgia and the wisdom of Mr. Rogers. Decades ahead of the mindfulness movement, he delivered his own brand of this on TV, touching on difficult topics and emotions that accompany experiences with bullying, illness and even loss.
I was also captivated by the movie’s protagonist, Llyod Vogel. Here was a wounded, imperfect person struggling with his identity as a parent and a son. Llyod is sent on assignment to Pittsburgh to interview Mr. Rogers, and like many others in his day questioned “Can this guy be for real?”
In short, he is. It’s unclear in the movie where the real stops and surreal begins, but the spirit and authenticity of Mr. Rogers is undeniable. While not a cynic like Lloyd, as a teen in the 80’s I thought of Mr. Rogers as a meme. Until I was brought face to face with his gracious humanity. As part of a delegation attending a student leadership conference in Pittsburgh in the mid-80’s, I had a vague awareness that we may be in Mr. Rogers neighborhood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows Fred Rogers’ ease and authenticity in his interactions with others he meets.
I was with a group of boisterous teens when we spotted him from across the street. Mr. Rogers was as gracious to my group of friends as if we were a delegation from the White House. Posing for photos and asking about the conference and our impressions of Pittsburgh, he was patient, kind and present.
The photo of me with Mr. Rogers adorned my mom’s refrigerator for decades. It was one of her most cherished possessions, and I loved it for the tenuous bond it created between my rebellious, insecure teenaged self and my busy, demanding mother.
Even though Mr. Rogers channeled a sense of calmness and perfection, he accepted a world that wasn’t. His show made him an icon, but the connections he made off camera was his true gift. While many more Thanksgivings will pass before my boys recognize the meaningful way we spent last Saturday, spending this time together in the service of others brought us a little closer together. And for that I am thankful.