Born and raised in the giant corn field that is central Illinois, I was ready to move to the mountains by age 9, though my escape plan didn’t come together for another 14 years.
I learned in grade school that the vast swaths of farmland that surrounded us were once rich forests populated by wildlife far more diverse than the familiar roadkill breed of deer and home to indigenous people later eradicated, like the woods, by hordes of Caucasian immigrants and refugees. The connection to those true natives—as individual tribes and as an impressive confederation—lives on in the names of things, like the state, a handful of towns, various streets and housing developments, and assorted high school and college sports teams (a tradition also employed in regards to the exterminated fauna).
My skepticism of humanity and sense of sarcasm were also born in central Illinois. The only things I’ve missed about the Midwest since I left nearly 20 years ago are family, friends and fall1. Of the many things for which I am thankful this year—a bumpy and scary-fast ride—I am especially grateful for our recent visit to the Land of Lincoln and the opportunity to catch up with friends too long unseen.
I’ve always been proud that Illinois claims Abraham Lincoln as its son; you snooze, you lose, Kentucky. It was Lincoln, incidentally, who proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, though an informal observance of the “first Thanksgiving,” the 1621 gathering between the pilgrims and Wampanoag people, had long been part of the culture.
History tells us that inaugural Thanksgiving was likely part harvest celebration and part continuance of a tenuous peace treaty. The holiday became a symbol of the America we say we aspire to be, but then behave in the exact opposite manner to achieve.
Finley Peter Dunne, a humorist and columnist from Illinois who often wrote as the character Mr. Dooley and was a favorite of President Theodore Roosevelt2, sums up Thanksgiving thus: “’Twas founded be th’ Puritans to give thanks f’r bein’ preserved fr’m th’ Indyans, an’ … we keep it to give thanks we are preserved fr’m th’ Puritans” [sic]. Alas, we are still not entirely preserved from the Puritans, we just call them Republicans today.
The trip meant I wouldn’t be able to attend a family Thanksgiving in Illinois, which made me sad, but my Republican cracks go over better in a college town. Besides, I had not seen many of my friends in some two decades, and though our ranks were a bit thinner than one would wish and my ability to get drunk enough for an after-hours break-in of our favorite bar was impaired by illness, it was a grand time and it proved to my better half that I actually have friends.
“What though youth gave love and roses,” observes Thomas Moore, “Age still leaves us friends and wine.” I am thankful for both, and so much more.
There was too little time, but I tried to savor every whirlwind moment. The warm embraces and war stories; the toasts to fallen comrades and friends who couldn’t make the trip; the crisp morning stroll amid falling leaves as big as one’s face; the algebraic game of darts whose scoring system I didn’t comprehend until everyone else was ready to quit.
As we aimed west, bracing for the wastelands of Missouri and Kansas, I was thankful, too, for Illinois. “No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness for this parting,” Lincoln said in his farewell address to the state in 1861 before leaving to assume the presidency. “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”
1And thunderstorms, but that didn’t alliterate; I loved those mighty, dramatic tempests as much as I feared them as a kid—I relished the rush of watching the storms build, then scrambling to gather a flashlight, candles and a radio, and head to the basement as tornado warning sirens wailed. The weather on this trip, alas, was entirely pleasant.
2Roosevelt, a Republican and a man who certainly enjoyed any excuse to gorge on some extra game, in his 1908 Thanksgiving proclamation shared the noble sentiment: “Nowhere else in the world is the average of individual comfort and material well-being as high as in our fortunate land. For the very reason that in material well-being we have thus abounded, we owe it to the Almighty to show equal progress in moral and spiritual things. … The things of the body are good; the things of the intellect better; the best of all are the things of the soul; for, in the nation as in the individual, in the long run it is character that counts.”