Thank goodness for thanks-giving

When you get right down to it, we're all Pilgrims

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Writer Anne Lamott says the two best prayers she knows are, "Help me, help me, help me!" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

The experience of the Pilgrims reveals that prayers of thanksgiving often grow out of cries for help. Less than 50 of those who sailed from England on the Mayflower in 1620 survived their first winter in the new world. That painful experience made the Pilgrims appreciate the help Squanto and other Native Americans gave them. That aid in their hour of need made them deeply grateful in the midst of loss.

Responses to the question, "What are you thankful for?" from 16 residents of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park give added support to the contention that Lamott's two prayers belong together.

Joe Novak, for example discovered that the failure of a family business opened a door for him through which he could pursue a dream. He said, "While I have many things to be thankful for, one that stands out is how thankful I am to have been able to start my own business [Novak's Home Services], keep a few people employed part-time, and inevitably help people with the work that I do.

"My family's small business had to close a few years ago. This left me unemployed, but as a blessing in disguise, it allowed me time to think, plan, and pursue a career that I am passionate about."

Jan Pate, president and CEO of the West Cook YMCA, once had a job as a TV news anchor. "That was the career I trained for," she recalled, "and I thought it is what I wanted to do forever. It didn't turn out that way and actually for that I am grateful."

That loss opened a door for her as it had for Novak. "I am thankful to be a part of an organization that has stood the test of time in our community for coming up on 110 years," she said. "Every day I have the opportunity to interact with an incredibly diverse group of people who see the Y as a place where community is built, relationships are nurtured, well-being is pursued, and friendships are deepened."

"I love what I do," she continued, "and I realize not everyone can say that about his or her work. That I can be a small part of the good we do as the way I make my living — by keeping the Y vibrant and thriving for our community — makes me extremely grateful. I never got the same good feeling after a good newscast as I do after a good day at the Y."

Chris Everett is a financial planner who owns Everett Wealth Solutions in River Forest. As her business began to grow, she knew she needed help. "If you are a business owner," she said, "you know how important having a great staff is to your success and overall peace of mind. I've been in business for 25 years now and about 20 years ago I knew I needed to get some support. I wrote out what I would want in that person, prayed about it and forgot about it. Within a week, I met Bonnie. She was amazing."

When Bonnie moved on, Everett "prayed about it and waited. God sent Lennie who helped us quadruple in size." When Lennie left, Randi appeared, and when Randi, who has been with Everett for 14 years, needed help, "yep, you guessed it, we made a new list, prayed about it and he sent Carol who has been with us for the last 5 years. … I never cease to be thankful for how God continues to bless me with talent to run my business."

Jessica Mackinnon, director of public information at Dominican University, tells the story of how her father's experiences in World War II helped determine the trajectory of the rest of his life which has, in turn, had a profound impact on hers.

"At this time of year [Veterans Day]," Mackinnon says, "I find myself thinking about my father and how much I appreciate the sacrifices he made so I could have a better life. My father, Richard Mackinnon, was in the Battle of the Bulge at the age of 19 — about the same age as my two sons — which really puts his experience into perspective for me. He went overseas with a group of 300 men and came back with 30 and always claimed that he spent the rest of his life honoring those who died by leading as virtuous a life as he could.

"He never talked about the war and I just learned recently that he spent a month in a hospital in France with dysentery and trench foot — a month when he wasn't able to receive any communication or visits from his parents. With today's technology, that is hard to imagine. My father was the most honorable person I've ever known and I'm thankful for his influence every day — but especially this time of year."

Hildegarde (Gick) Schmidt, retired dean of admissions and financial aid at Dominican found a reason to be thankful while grieving the loss of her husband. "My mother often told me she believed memory was one of God's greatest gifts to us," she explained. "This year I am especially thankful for the gift of memory. I have memories of the births of our children, childhood memories, memories of my parents, memories from more than 70 years ago and memories of three months ago. My husband of 56 years died two months ago, and now I have only memories.

"His memory had been failing for several years, and that reality helped me understand what an amazing gift it is to be able to remember. Memories sustain me now through the tears as I remember both the joys and sorrows of our 56 years together. I cannot imagine life without those memories. When I pray at the Thanksgiving table this year, I will thank God for the gift of memory."

Oak Park Trustee Ray Johnson is grateful for the Oak Park and River Forest High School Gay/Straight Alliance (OPRF GSA), partly because he remembers how difficult it was for him to come out when he was young. He explained, "In too many villages and towns across America, LGBT and questioning youth have absolutely nowhere to turn when they are victimized, bullied, and in some extreme cases, tossed from their home when parents and supposed loved ones embrace homophobia over their own child. Too many young people have ended their own life because of societal stigma related to their sexual orientation, or have had their life ended for them. The OPRF GSA provides a safe space for LGBT youth and their straight allies to come together."

Dr. Andre Hines is the CEO of Circle Family Health Care in the Austin Neighborhood. "When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of months ago," she said, "I was not happy with the services she was receiving in another state and the fact that she had no family there with her. She is now living with me in Forest Park and receiving outpatient care at Circle and has in-patient surgery scheduled at Loyola.

"Even in the midst of the challenges of Health Care Reform and our state's economic situation, I am just tickled pink by the quality of care she has received. For the first time in years, her blood sugar is under control and the doctors here discovered that the cancer diagnosis in the other state was inadequate. I thank God that in Chicago we continue to have some of the best quality health care systems and great and compassionate health care providers."

Although Mark Walsh's job as the campaign director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence forces him daily to confront tragedies happening just a few blocks away from where we live, he is grateful for the work he does.

"I am thankful every day," he explained, "for having an opportunity to work with so many people who have taken the pain of losing a loved one and turned that pain into action. I don't know if I'm that strong of a person if I were in that situation, but their strength and determination inspires me every day and I'm thankful to have all of them in my life."

Oak Park Temple Cantor Julie Yugend-Green said that gratitude for her electric blanket reminds her of the call to work for justice. "There is nothing," she said, "as comforting as burrowing into the warmth of a pre-heated bed, when the electric blanket has been turned on around 30 minutes before I go to sleep. Of course I'm aware of the larger issue here — that I'm fortunate enough to have a warm bed on a cold night when so many in our community do not have that luxury, and for that my gratitude is boundless. The warmth provided by my electric blanket is a reminder that I need to take my place in fulfilling the responsibility of the Hebrew phrase, Tikkun Olam — repairing the world."

Jill Wagner, director of marketing at the Oak Park Arms, is thankful that what she calls "a network of relationships" has not allowed all of the tragedy and misery in the world to break her spirit. "I have been reading That Used To Be Us," she noted, "where the authors Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that Americans have fallen behind because they have resigned. I am most grateful that I haven't resigned. I haven't gotten 'used to things.' I have a little trigger that digs my heels in and doesn't give up. It is through an unbelievable core of love and support from my husband, children, parents, friends, and community that I am able to be an active participant to building a healthy community to raise my family."

Rebekah Levin, director of evaluation and learning at the McCormick Foundation, is also grateful for the people who encourage her to live out what she believes. "I am thankful for having been raised by parents who taught me to value and honor all human beings, regardless of tribe — to move beyond speech and actively live one's beliefs. I am thankful for having a community that cuts across many tribes and is filled with friends, colleagues and companions who are dedicated to justice and love. I am thankful for having a wise and loving partner who helps me stay grounded and keeps us laughing."

Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council, said, "I am thankful for an art-filled community that understands and values the importance of the arts in every person's life. I am thankful that on any given day or night, I can enjoy and experience the arts by attending a dance performance, theater, concert, movie, view an exhibit, visit a museum or read a good book at our magnificent library."

She expressed gratitude for the Arts Council and many patrons of the arts, then paused and added, "On another note, since it is Thanksgiving, I am thankful that my dear Mom taught me how to bake scrumptious sweet potato and chess pies and that my turkey and dressing rivals many of the best!"

Debby Preiser, a River Forest resident who is head of programming at the Oak Park Public Library, writes: "I am grateful to get to know so many local writers, artists, musicians, actors and playwrights through my work at the library over the past 20 years. My own life has been enriched by hosting the hundreds of programs, gallery exhibits and receptions, performances and concerts which have showcased the amazing array of talent in our community. We are fortunate to live and work among so many creative folks!"

Teresa Powell, Oak Park's village clerk and a member of AARP, says, "This fall I attended a women's retreat with a number of friends from the Oak Park area. At the end of the retreat we were asked to think of a single word to represent how we felt. For me, the obvious answer was 'Gratitude.'

"For the past couple of years I have been feeling increasingly tired and was coping with several health problems. I blamed much of it on 'getting older' and the stress of work. I had planned a vacation at the end of last summer, but by the week before I was to leave, I was barely able to walk without gasping. My doctor recommended a cardiologist, and in two days I had a new pacemaker to make my heart beat correctly.

"I am grateful to all of the staff at West Suburban — from my transporter who gave encouragement as I went into this sudden surgery to the medical team who changed my life, as well as friends who offered support. I'm also grateful to the scientists and medical researchers who make it possible to repair the human body and give us not just a longer life, but a better one. Today I feel like I have my life back again. And yes, I did go on that vacation — just four days after the surgery!"

Louise Barder Corzine, 68 ("but who's counting?") an Oak Park resident and a registered nurse with a Master in Public Health degree who works at the Hines VA Medical Center, writes: "I work full time at one of the largest hospitals for our veterans in the country. All one has to do is walk the halls to see the courage, tenacity, brotherhood and sisterhood among our veterans. Just knowing each veteran carries their own acquired scars from the traumas of military life, both visible and invisible, makes me grateful and inspired to serve them as best I can."

Al Gini, River Forest resident and professor of business ethics at Loyola University, gave the shortest response but one most of us can relate to: "I'm thankful the election is finally over! And it only cost $5.8 billion!"

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