Beyond Blood Bonds
The spirit of Thanksgiving prevails, even in the most unconventional situations.
Special thanks to Whole Foods Market, Shanel Sterling, Canada Fleming, Tulsa Fire Department and Linda Layman Agency.
Photo by Heath Sharp.
We’ve all seen it, either in person or on the television: a glistening turkey fresh from the oven, family members laughing and passing a basket of rolls while the children load up on pie. Everyone snoozes, follows the Cowboys game, and watches A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving or, for true holiday enthusiasts, White Christmas. Games are played, leftovers are packed up, and the house resonates with humor and warmth. It’s the ubiquitous Thanksgiving scene, a cornucopia of images that Americans have come to expect around the holidays.
That is, some Americans. As youngsters, we learned from our national mythology that during the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims sat down with the Wampanoag Indians for a banquet of turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie before living happily ever after in peace. We know now that the real story went just a little bit differently. These people’s Thanksgiving stories are a little bit different, too.
Firing Up The Feast
For most people, Thanksgiving is a day when the outside world vanishes and time is measured by football and food comas. But for emergency personnel, this day is business as usual, and sitting down at home for a quintessential Thanksgiving dinner is not an option. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t find ways to celebrate.
Major Keith McMurphy, a 23-year veteran of the Oklahoma City Fire Department, has seen a lot of on-duty Thanksgivings. He says the fact that everything must be shut down and left every time there is an emergency call makes cooking at the station difficult, but firefighters find ways to work around such obstacles.
“Often, the personnel who are scheduled to be on-duty Thanksgiving Day will plan a large meal, invite their families and others whom they know may not have family, and begin preparing the meal for their honored guests a few days before the event,” he says. “Sometimes, personnel will decide to ask family to bring prepared food to the fire station (pot-luck style) in order to avoid the possibility of being too busy with calls to prepare the meal at the fire station and ensure that it will be served when scheduled…In the course of most meals, there will be emergency calls. That is normal.”
Inviting the families to the fire station serves a dual purpose, McMurphy says. While it brings a taste of home and the holidays to fire personnel, it also gives comfort to those who often worry about their loved ones on duty.
“I believe that many family members – spouses, parents, children, etc. – find that the holiday fellowship at the fire station calms many of the normal anxieties and fears they experience when their firefighter is at work,” he says. “Mostly, it is because they can quickly see the bond that we have as a fire company. We live together, we play rough, and we love one another. Those characteristics of a fire station environment are what show a family member that their loved one will not be in harm’s way without several people who absolutely will not turn their backs on them.
“For other people who may not have family or cannot be with their family on Thanksgiving, whether on-duty or off-duty, it is a blessing to be at work,” McMurphy continues. “We work with our secondary family: firemen. It can be a great place to be if you need fellowship and family on a holiday.”
Despite the potential for emergency interruptions, firefighters on duty during Thanksgiving still enjoy many of the traditions most Americans have come to expect this time of year.
“On holidays, we try to relax at the fire station,” says Captain Derak Stewart. “We take care of our daily business, and then we will try to catch some football games and eat as if we were at home with family. The typical traditions would mostly revolve around eating. A lot of eating!”
“We enjoy a holiday meal, a football game, a fire station full of family, and a lighter-than-normal call volume,” McMurphy says. “Those are the goals and dreams of most firefighters as they arrive for duty on a holiday. Those things make a holiday shift special.”
Bounty for the Boys
In 1918, two young boys were found sleeping in Tulsa trashcans. Ever since those first residents were rescued, Tulsa Boys’ Home has been helping troubled male children find their ways to better futures. Residents of the home typically include wards of the state and boys placed there for drug treatment by parents and guardians.
“They are all a little different,” says Executive Director Gregory Conway. “Throughout their stay, we do our best to give them another chance at a happy and successful life.”
Since officially being incorporated in 1919, the home has built almost a century’s worth of special Thanksgiving celebrations for its boys, many of whom never experience the picturesque family dinners of holiday legend.
“For many of our residents, a ‘normal’ holiday has never had special meaning to them,” Conway says. “We try hard to create that sense of family togetherness and instill the role of traditions and holidays. But most of our boys do not have families; therefore, our unique Tulsa Boys’ Home traditions are especially important and meaningful.”
While the staff at the home works diligently to deliver all the typical foods and trappings of Thanksgiving to residents – “The dining hall is filled to the brim with food and people as we all gather together to give thanks and count our blessings,” Conway says – the home has worked to add unique customs to the celebrations. For example, he says, “We have also established new traditions where we take the boys into Tulsa for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant the day after Thanksgiving. Afterward, we all enjoy a heartwarming holiday movie at a local Tulsa theater.”
“The best part of the TBH Thanksgiving holiday is just being together and celebrating this special time of thanks with our boys and wonderful staff,” Conway says.
A Family of Choice
For many people, the idea of a welcoming Thanksgiving gathering with family is taken for granted. But those who sometimes face rejection at home, such as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, often celebrate the holidays with another sort of family – one that may not share blood ties, but is loving all the same. This includes many of the guests at the Thanksgiving festivities thrown by Oklahomans for Equality.
“Our event is for people to be around their ‘family of choice,’” says Toby Jenkins, executive director of Oklahomans for Equality and the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center. “Many LGBT people are alienated from their families, or their same-sex partners are not welcome. Many transgender individuals are not welcome in their families’ homes. We provide a traditional family Thanksgiving experience for all of those who are not welcome at home or not accepted by their birth families.”
Oklahomans for Equality tries to make each year’s event inspirational and comforting for attendees, offering them a home away from home for the celebration. The day is packed with special traditions, entertainment and bonding between attendees. “Every year, we feature outstanding dinner entertainment in our ‘Come Home for the Holiday,’” Jenkins says. “Last year we had harpist Linda Paul, who took requests from the audience. We post pictures on our Facebook page of special Thanksgiving greetings that attendees send out to the community. We have a moment of silence to allow people to contemplate things they are grateful for. We read off the beneficial advances for equal rights for marginalized communities locally and nationally as a part of the things to be grateful for. We play games with the winners getting the centerpieces. And we allow people to share stories of inspiration.”
Assisting Oklahomans for Equality with the feast is an affiliation of faith organizations that welcome the gay community, as well as straight parents and families who wish to provide support at the dinner. “Each year, we see more and more families with children participate so those children see their same-sex parents connect them to lots of Tulsans just like their family,” Jenkins says.
The holidays are a difficult time for some members of the LGBT community, but Oklahomans for Equality, their partnering faith communities and local families strive to mitigate this with a particularly positive celebration. “Each year, we have young people who just ‘came out’ to their family, and it did not go so well because the parents are dealing with religious stigma of having a gay child,” Jenkins says. “It is such a tender moment to hear these LGBT young people express appreciation to know we will be their family as their parents come to accept them. They get to meet other parents who can reassure them that things do change and parents can eventually come to accept them.”
Making Merry With Many
Once upon a time, Clay and Holly Morris were despaired trying to have more children. They had no idea that one day, they would be celebrating Thanksgiving with eight.
“We had a plan for starting our family, but our plans didn’t work out,” Holly Morris admits. “We always say that we are so thankful they didn’t.”
While waiting to conceive again, the couple decided to channel their love to children in need of foster homes. Over the next few years, they fostered several children while adding to their own biological family. When one of their previous foster children passed away, leaving infant twin daughters, the Morrises formally adopted the girls, thus starting on the path that would bring them not only four biological children, but four adopted children as well. The Morris children range in age from 2 to 20, making Thanksgiving in their household a larger-than-life event.
In addition to celebrating the holiday with their children, the Morrises also include another family each year, who bring their own three biological children and four foster children along for festivities.
“Talk about a houseful! We celebrate a weekend of Thanksgiving, not just a day,” Morris says.
The biggest tradition in the Morris household is honoring the true spirit of Thanksgiving by remembering for what – and whom – they are grateful. “We all, at least most of us, name one thing we are thankful for each year,” Morris says. “Never has there been a year that a person hasn’t been named. People, life, children…those are what we are most thankful for. It is an event, not just a meal, and a celebration of what we are most thankful for. It’s flexible and evolving, while holding to American traditions. We look forward to seeing who will be joining us each year.”
A Home for the Holiday
Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving evokes images of loved ones and a place to call home. But for those who have no homes or families, there is still a special place to celebrate the event. City Rescue Mission, an Oklahoma City faith-based organization, has been providing food and shelter for the city’s homeless population for more than half a century, serving an average of 350,000 meals each year. Approximately 900 homeless and volunteers attend the mission’s annual Thanksgiving feast. While this may sound daunting to some, president and CEO The Rev. Tom Jones says high attendance isn’t the distinguishing factor of the meal.
“The thing that makes it so special is the fact that so many wonderful volunteers come down to participate in this special day of giving thanks,” he says. “The volunteers make a tremendous impression on the homeless individual because the homeless know that these volunteers could be any place in the world they chose to be that day, yet they chose to spend it with them. This is such a powerful statement of acceptance and encouragement to the homeless. It is an amazing impact on the children of the volunteers when they truly see that many are not as blessed as they are with a family that loves them and supports them. I truly love to see the interaction between the homeless person that feels so lonely and forgotten and the volunteer that gives their time and holiday to share with those in need.”
The mission’s celebration, which is open to anyone in the community, boasts all the accouterment of the customary holiday, including turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie – and family. Volunteer families each sponsor tables, bringing with them their favorite decorations and desserts, before sitting down as a whole to share the comforts of family and warmth with homeless individuals.
Jones says the holiday is a reminder of how giving the citizens of Oklahoma City can be.
“We live in a time when it is easy to forget about the less fortunate,” he says. “A true measure of the health of a community is to see how they treat and care for their underprivileged. We truly are blessed to have a community that takes care of its impoverished.”
*The Dennis R. Neill Equality Center is open every day of the year, and serves Thanksgiving dinner at noon. To RSVP for the event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit www.okeq.org for more details.
*City Rescue Mission is open every day of the year, and serves Thanksgiving dinner at noon. For more information, call 405.232.2709 or visit www.cityrescue.org.
*If you are interested in becoming a foster or adoptive parent, Oklahoma’s children need you. Contact the Bridge Family Resource Center at 800.376.9729 or visit their website at www.okbridgefamilies.com.