The Long Thanksgiving Dinner Revisited

In the past, I have written about Thornton Wilder’s beautiful one act play “The Long Christmas Dinner” in which the life cycle of a family is portrayed over an imagined dinner in which persons come in through a white birth curtain and leave through a black curtain.

For me, that table is set at Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I can see generations gathered about that table. Many have gone through the Black Curtain, some quite suddenly, some way too young.

One of my sisters never even makes it to the table. She comes to the table and leaves immediately through the Black Curtain. My other sister sits for only a moment, then also leaves.

But I also see many loved ones who sat at that table many times. My parents and my brother are there. Although she is aged, my Mom leaves the table quickly while my father takes a long slow walk to the Black Curtain.

I see old Aunt Margaret, she who was in Paris when Lindbergh landed. She who saw Babe Ruth play baseball (“Clumsiest man I ever saw!”). She who, in her 90s, gave me the finest anti-war sentiment I ever heard as she shook her head and said “So many young men.”

There are my Uncle Gaddy and Aunt Peg, my surrogate grandparents. I never sat at the table with my grandmothers. They had walked through the Black Curtain before I walked through the white one.. My grandfathers were also gone by the time I was 7. So these two wonderful people filled a great void — Gaddy with his burly Irish accent, the smell of cigars about him and Peg, maker of the World’s Greatest Peanut Butter cookies.

Aunt Mary is there, she who was schizophrenic, carrying on a constant patter of self-talk or reading romance novels.

I see too my Uncle Joe and Aunt Kathleen. She was sophisticated and helped John F. Kennedy carry the vote in Rhode Island. He was a veteran of the South Pacific, down-to-earth, smoking a cigarette as he was dying of lung cancer. Among many things, he helped me love the Redsox.

I see my Aunt Dorothy, my father’s only sibling. She who never married and the day after she retired, quit drinking, packed up and moved to California to be closer to my brother, leaving behind a stunning example of courage.

This year for many there will be more empty chairs. For some those absences will reflect the ravages of COVID. For others, absence will be due to restrictions such as closed borders. Even the numbers allowed at tables will officially be limited.

This Thanksgiving more than any in recent memory will have a curtain of fear over it as COVID numbers rage and our country endures a less-than-smooth transition in government. There has been a part of me that is grateful some loved ones have passed through the black curtain and do not have to endure these times

And yet, as I gather with my family, I will pause to be grateful for the many wonderful people, friends and family alike, who have gathered at my Thanksgiving table in person or in spirit. There will be new members at this year’s Long Thanksgiving Dinner. A beautiful grandson has walked through the white curtain. As always, others who were present in the past have slowly or quickly left the table for the black curtain. Yet all who grace and have graced that table will be present. We will join hands in gratitude and in hope, remembering especially this year the words from Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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On Viet Nam Veterans

Vietnam Veterans Memorial | Facts, Designer, & Controversy | Britannica

Veterans’ Day is next week and I am proud that it is now a national holiday. I have been humbled by the fact that my status as a veteran has meaning to the many vets I meet daily and am honored that they choose to share their stories.

These days I meet many Viet Nam veterans coming simply to talk. All express wonder and even concern that memories from 50 years ago are suddenly coming back. I share with them an encounter I had with my brother-in-law Dave, an Air Force veteran who served courageously in Viet Nam.

A while back, I was at a family gathering and approached my brother-in-law and noted that I was seeing an influx of Viet Nam veterans. He became quiet then said “Well, you go over there and you see some things. Then you come home and you throw yourself into your work and your family. But your kids grow up and eventually you retire.” He paused, then said “And stuff starts coming back to you.”

So it goes. Horrific experiences in the jungle 50+ years ago are coming back to the men and women who served in a very unpopular war that led to hurtful receptions at home. The atmosphere for returning vets was so hostile that many simply didn’t acknowledge that they were veterans. And they kept what they had seen and done to themselves.

But those memories don’t go away. And as these vets begin to have more time on their hands, the memories can flood back with a vengeance. Some of the Viet Nam vets do indeed need help but many more simply need an an opportunity to talk and be listened to without judgment and especially without the judgment they faced 50 years ago.

Some are still angry about the reception they received at that time. One vet told me of an encounter he’d had in a grocery store. He happened to be wearing a Viet Nam veteran hat and someone came up to him and said sincerely “Thank you for your service.” At the time he simply grunted a thanks but said to me “Where the fuck where those people 50 years ago? I didn’t get thanked. I just got spit on.”

So if you know any Viet Nam veterans, be sensitive to the fact that their nights may be more tortured then ever and that they may be flooded with memories and very much longing for inner peace. If they honor you with their stories, just listen.

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On the Kindness of Strangers

Photo of Hanks Hoagies - Scranton, PA, United States. Hank & Myra

My brother directed me to a piece last night featuring a boyhood friend of Joe Biden. The piece opened in front of a place called Hank’s Hoagies. That image brought back a flood of memories of what used to be what you would now call an independent grocery store. In those days, it was known as Hank and Myra’s.

When you hear old people like me wax poetic about the good old days, we may be thinking of places such as Hank and Myra’s. Their store was a block and a half from our home. It was a grocery store but it was also an after-school hangout, a refuge for girls from Marywood, the local women’s college, and, above all, the source of memorable hoagies.

I remember Hank and Myra also for their kindness and trust. Some days I would be walking home from school and Myra would stick her head out and say “Here Rich. Your Mom wants a quart of milk.” My Mom would pay for it the next time she came down.

I remember stories of local college girls who were short on money and hungry. Hank and Myra would spot them with a hoagie and soda, telling them they could pay when their parents’ check arrived. Myra would let the girls talk about loneliness, boyfriend problems etc. while Hank might be outside breaking up a fight.

I remember their penny candy case where wonderful treasures such as spearmint leaves and candy cigarettes and chewy squirrels would be found. Hank and Myra would let me make my own selections out of the case.

I remember delivering their mail once and Myra asking me if I wanted a soda — free!

Hank and Myra were not Catholic but when they retired my home church St. Clare’s honored them with a banquet in thanks for many years of service and kindness in a heavily Catholic neighborhood. They also were honored one year in the Marywood Yearbook.

Their store is no longer a grocery store but still sells hoagies and has maintained a bit of connection as it is named Hank’s Hoagies. I kind of wish they’d named it Hank and Myra’s.

Reflection: Do you have memories of being touched by the kindness of down-to-earth folks such as Hank and Myra?

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On the Right to Life

When one hears that term, one immediately assumes the speaker is referring to the issue of abortion. And indeed the issue of abortion is an important one for all spiritual people to address. However, I believe strongly that discussions of the right to life need to go far beyond the issue of abortion.

The right to life is a belief that should indeed address the unborn but it needs to address all of life!

A Right to Life dialogue should first of all speak to the entire life span. It should address the rights of the poor. The rights of the immigrant for a better life. The needs of the veteran for something as basic as a home as well as an opportunity to heal. The rights of the elderly to not be forgotten. The rights of the dying to do so with dignity and care.

A Right to Life dialogue should not stop with addressing human life. We humans have not done a good job of taking care of our fellow creatures and our environment. We have allowed and continue to allow greed to give us permission to kill off species of animals and to decimate our forests. Do wildlife not have a right to life too? Are we not called to respect the lives of the trees and the streams?

The Right to Life movement needs to address other politically “hot” issues such as gun control, the death penalty, and, most especially, war. If there is any pervasive human activity that threatens life, it is war, no matter how justified we might feel a given war to be. War affects people. With the many veterans I’ve worked with over the years, those who came to see the so-called enemy as a person have had deep struggles justifying their behavior and that of their government. The bottom line of a war is to kill as many people as possible. Is that not an affront to one’s right to life?

Jesus challenged us to consider who has a Right to Life. He focused on the poor and the displaced. He noted that the Jews of His day had a right to life but so did the Samaritans. His most powerful invitation to honor the rights of others to life was His command to love our enemy.

Loving my enemy may be a key to my embracing an attitude that life — all of life — is sacred. Yes, my loved ones have a right to life but so does the mean old man down the street. The veteran on the street corner. And, yes, even the murderer sitting in a jail cell.

I have no easy answers to the many complex issues addressed by considering a comprehensive right to life. All that I know is that my exploration of the issues needs to be guided by compassion, not judgment.

So I invite you to consider your own understanding of the term Right to Life and perhaps to expand it to embrace all of God’s creation.

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Your Spiritual Geneology

Ever since Alex Haley’s Roots appeared in the 1970s there has been increasing interested in geneology even to the point of television shows where a researcher studies the geneologies of current celebreties.

At a personal level, I have found nothing exciting or dramatic in my own geneology. My ancestors appear to manifest what Marcus Borg refers to as “the obscurity of humble lives”. However, when I stood on the dock in Cobh, Ireland and when I saw a replica of the ships that brought my ancestors here, it gave me a deeper appreciation for how much they suffered to get here and how much I owe to them.

I have also found that it can be interesting to create one’s own spiritual geneology, articulating not only ancestors’ religious affiliations but also any relevant beliefs. Sadly, all my grandparents were dead by the time I was 7 so I did not have the benefit of learning any of their spiritual journeys. But I have been able to fill in a few blanks.

My paternal grandfather was a convert to Catholicism, having been Presbyterian prior to that. I believe he converted so that he could marry my grandmother, a woman with deep Irish Catholic roots. As best I can tell, he remained a practicing Catholic all his life to include sending my father to Catholic schools.

I know a little more about my maternal grandfather. He raised 7 children by himself, having lost my grandmother to the flu epidemic of 1918-19. But, unlike many guilt-ridden Catholics, he went to confession only once a year on the Saturday before Holy Week. He would bathe, put on a suit, then go to the church. He obviously approached that sacrament in a way that was meaningful to him but not necessarily traditionally Catholic. Perhaps I inherited the gene to question from him. How he dealt with the death of my grandmother I don’t know but I suspect it was similar to how my mother dealt with the deaths of my sisters: “Some of us carry crosses heavier than others.”

I have written much about my mother’s faith. It was steel tested in the fires of tragic loss. I did and do not adhere to all her beliefs but have grown increasingly respectful of them.

My father, on the other hand, appears to have been affected by all that I dislike about religion . His journey appears to have been greatly shaped by guilt and fear such that, late in his life, he would comment that his series of strokes were “punishment for my sins.” I suspect he may have viewed the deaths of my sisters in the same way.

Our spiritual beliefs are shaped in many ways. The Linn brothers and Sheila Fabricant have suggested that in fact our image of the God of our understanding is very much shaped by our parents. Thus, if I had abusive parents, I might see God as punishing. If my parents were benevolent but uninvolved, I might see God in a similar way. This too is an important part of one’s spiritual geneology.

I am grateful for the confluence of beliefs that have played a role in my faith journey.

Reflection: What insights into your own journey come from your spiritual geneology?

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Excerpt from “Catholics and Gun Control”

My latest article is titled “Catholics and Gun Control” and appears in the current issue of St. Anthony Messenger. Here is an excerpt:

Some would argue that the issue of gun control is a political issue, not a moral one. And indeed politicians are everywhere visible these days. either arguing for the rights of gun owners or for the right to be safe. Much of it is rhetoric with no significant change.

Perhaps the morality exists at a larger level. Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is about trying to live a life that is consistent with Jesus’ message.

I believe that, to fully grasp the impact of Jesus’ revolutionary message, we have to read the entire Bible. What one sees working through the Old Testament is violence! Lots of it! And much of that violence is not only condoned by but caused by God! God is referred to among other things as “Lord of Heaven’s Armies”. God intervenes time and again to tilt the scales of battle on behalf of His Jewish nation. God leads Jews to victory time and again (except when they doubt or reject him). We cheer David’s killing of Goliath. We rejoice when Ester saves her Jewish people from genocide and the bad guy Haman is executed. But in the Old Testament there are also hints of what is coming. Isaiah, for example, calls to reflect on days to come when shields will be hammered into plowshares and swords into pruning hooks. Ecclesiastes notes that not only is there a time for war but a time for peace. At several points in the Old Testament. there is the hint of a future new order.

It is only within the context of the violence of the Old Testament that we can fully appreciate the remarkable power of Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. The focus is no longer on payback to our enemies. Jesus suggests something different.

If you would like to read the entire article, it is available at If you If you read the entire article, please come back here and share your reaction.

If you would be interested in your own copy, send me your address at <> and I’ll send you a copy.

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The Bible as Invitation

I continue to read the Bible on a regular basis. Some ask me “Why?” Hard question. I don’t feel obliged. Some parts of the Bible are crushingly boring (Do I really want to know about the dimensions of the Temple?) Other parts are disturbing with stories of violence, even genocide. Yet I keep reading it.

Do I take the Bible literally. No. Do I find value in historical analyses of the Bible? Absolutely. Do I believe the Bible is the Word of God? Yes, but not in the way many may think about it. For me, the Bible has become an invitation to interact with God, even to wrestle with the angel.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that the Bible was not a book about God but a book about Man and men’s and women’s search for God. Thus we read many different images of God in the Bible — a warrior, a comforter, a judge, a parent among many others. No one image is offered as definitive. After all, God said “I am Who am.” That leaves a fair amount of room for interpretation, doesn’t it?

Invitation to what? The Bible first of all invites me to find myself amidst various stories of the Bible. I can see myself in Cain’s jealousy, in the frustrations of the wandering Jews, in Job’s anger. I can relate to the prodigal son but also to his brother. I can relate to the Good Samaritan but also to those who walked on from the wounded man. I can relate to Peter’s fear and to Dismas’ hope.

I can also enjoy a good story. The Bible, after all, is replete with marvelous stories. Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. Ester saving her people with creative guile. The talking mule.

Some of those stories become anchor points on the journey. Jacob wrestling with the angel has been a key image for the spiritual journey. We have to be persistent in seeking answers yet also be aware that the journey is painful and not without a price.

The story of Dismas has been a focal point of hope for me, as it is for many in recovery. To be at rock bottom and to be told “Today you will be with my in paradise”. I know of no better definition of hope.

The Bible also challenges me to question my own Church. Women are far more central to Jewish and Christian faiths than I was led to believe. From Ester to the women beneath the cross, women have played a central role. Paul’s epistles make it clear that women held positions of leadership in the early church. Somehow that clarity got lost along the way.

The Bible also makes it clear how evil anti-semitism is! We Christians share Jewish heritage and Jewish history. Most obviously, Jesus was a Jew and never stopped being a Jew. And it wasn’t the Jews who crucified Jesus. Crucifixion, after all, was Roman form of torture and execution.

I am not a Biblical scholar or even a theologian. And so I can be open to what others might teach me about the Bible. But, for me, the Bible is fluid. Rachel Held Evans says it best: “..the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine, and debate.” It is an invitation.

Reflection: 1. Do you have any favorite stories from the Bible? Which parts of the Bible do you struggle with? What in the Bible do you question?

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The Presence of My Enemy: Spiritual Challenges of a Mass Shooting

I wanted to repost this blog in honor of the victims of the Walmart shootings. Sadly, I wonder if the culture of violence in our country will ever heal

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

People of faith typically react with sorrow and outrage with the news of shootings such as those at Sandy Hook and El Paso. But the after effects of such tragedies, especially when they happen in one’s hometown can include spiritual challenges and struggles.

The most obvious challenge is the question “Why? Why does God allow such things?” I have struggled with this question most of my life. These shootings intensify the question. Why did God permit the death of a young mother, shot as she shielded her infant, much less the deaths of other innocents. Why did God permit others to survive? Or perhaps God had nothing to do with it? Where if anywhere was God at Sandy Hook, in Odessa TX, or at a Walmart one Saturday morning?

Like Job, I and others would like for God to show up and explain Himself/Herself.

And yet in the face of…

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In Praise of the Negro Leagues

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, established in 1920 by Rube Foster. The Negro Leagues endured until the late 1950s, dying out after Major League Baseball began integration with Jackie Robinson in the National League and Larry Doby in the American League.

The Negro League developed in response to African American athletes being excluded from professional baseball starting in 1887. At that time, baseball team owners agreed to exclude African American ballplayers from signing contracts.

Foster’s league was a success for many years and became a training ground for some of the greatest athletes to grace a ball field. In addition to Hall of Famers Robinson and Doby, the Negro Leagues were also a starting point for other Hall-of-Famers such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and my personal candidate for Greatest Baseball Player Willie Mays.

The history of the Negro Leagues is replete with evidence of great ballplayers excluded form the wihites-only Major Leagues. If you take the time to learn about the Negro Leagues, you will learn of ballplayers such as Josh Gibson (called the black Babe Ruth) and Buck Leonard (known as the black Lou Gehrig).

Josh Gibson is a particular tragic figure. Integration came to late for him. As his remarkble career wound down, he developed a brian tumor and died at the age of 35 just months before Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The main figure in August Wilson’s great play Fences is suggestive of Gibson.

The Negro Leagues provide us with other remarkable ballplayers — the five tool great Oscar Charleston (the black Honus Wagner), the ageless great pitcher Satchel Paige, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, and my personal favorite James “Cool Papa” Bell.

These and countless other men were subjected to unimaginable discrimination and harassment. There is no doubt that many would have been quite successful in the white Major Leagues if given the opportunity And yet they showed up to play ball.

The history of the Negro Leagues certainly speaks to inexcusable racism. But it also speaks to heroic perseverence and, most especially, to the love of the game.

There are increasing numbers of books on the history of the Negro Leagues as well as books on specific men to include Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige. (I am greatly looking forward to a new biography of Cool Papa Bell).

As a final note, I consider myself privileged to have spent some time with a man who played in the Negro Leagues and shared stories with me of his teammate Roy Campanella as well as other greats to include — you guessed it — Cool Papa Bell (“He was as fast as everyone has said”)

So take the time to learn about the Negro Leagues. Should you find yourself in Kansas City MO make sure to visit the Negro League Museum.

As with the many seen below, I too tip my Boston Redsox hat to the Negro Leagues. Thank you!

Further Viewing:

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On Funerals

“Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship”

This may seem to be a gruesome topic for these pandemic days. One of the many impacts of COVID, however, is the extreme limitations placed on funerals. Once COVID has passed, we may need to find creative ways to say goodbye to those who passed during the times when funerals could not held

     I’d grown up with death. I had two sisters, both of whom had died of spina bifida.

They were present in one way or another for most of my life. They taught me a lot. In each of their passings, my parents taught me a lot as well.

      Each parent’s death was a very different experience. From diagnosis of cancer to her death was only three weeks in my mother’s case. My father’s walk, on the other hand was long and slow, marked by strokes and dementia. I lost mother all at once and quickly. I lost my father in inches over a long period of time

     I was 46 at the time my mother died and so had attended more than a few funerals by then. Most of the early funerals were for relatives, to include my maternal grandfather. Many of these early funerals were held at O’Donnell’s Funeral Home in Dunmore. Typically, there would be a day or two for “visitation”. The early funerals at least would have elements of Irish wakes. The women would be seated in the room with the deceased. The men would be in a room in the back which also just happened to have some bottles of whiskey. The women would weep. The men would drink. That was my first learning about dealing with death.

     When I went back home to see my mother at the end, I offered to help my dad set up funeral arrangements. I’d told my mother I was going to go to O’Donnell’s and she said “Oh yes. Talk to Annette.” Families in Dunmore knew one another and indeed when I spoke to Mrs. O’Donnell I reminded her that my Mom was one of the McDonalds from up on Drinker Street. A look came to her face and she said “Gena is your Mom?” She knew her.

     I learned a lot about the politics of funerals. Her son Al was talking me through preparations. On the day of the funeral, he said, he would call names of those present to walk up to the casket and say their farewells. “In what order would you like them to be?” I must have looked puzzled because he said “The order is important. I’ve seen some families get into arguments because someone didn’t like their place!”

     I learned another important lesson during the days of the wake. With one or two exceptions, I don’t remember much of what was said but I remember clearly who was there. In times of grief, I learned, words didn’t matter that much. Presence did. I remember who was there. Friends I hadn’t seen in years. A distant cousin I didn’t know I had. Friends of my parents. It was good to see how much she was loved. As my cousin Linda would later say to me “We all lost your Mom.”

     My mother also taught me another important lesson about dying. By then I’d had one experience of being present at someone’s death. It had been a potent spiritual experience so I went back hoping that I would be present when my Mom let go. But she hung on. One night after I left the hospital I raged at God. “She’s one of yours, Lord Take her!” But then the next evening I was sitting with my Mom and had a flash from, of all things, a Western Titled Ride the High Country. At the end of the film after a gun battle, Joel McCrea is lying on the ground speaking to his friend Randolph Scott. The two young people who were also there start walking to them. Joel McRae asks Randolph Scott to wave them off, saying “I’ll go it alone.” So said to my Mom, “You want to go it alone, don’t you?” She said quietly “Yes.”

     I realized then that she was the one doing the dying and therefore she was the one who got to set the terms, which is what she did. She died three days after Christmas shortly after a visit from my Dad. She was alone.

     My Dad’s leave-taking extended over 6 years. It began with a stroke 6 months before my mother died and ended in El Paso TX one week after he had fallen. He had moved to El Paso 3 years before and, for a time, lived comfortably at a nearby assisted living facility. Dementia began to set in, however, to the point that he was asked to leave that facility. My Dad for years had feared ending up in a nursing home. Fortunately, another assisted living facility was willing to take him. Wirth some adjustments in medication, his agitation left him and he was content. He had only two requests – that I not let him linger and that he be buried next to my Mom.

     That request not to linger would teach me an important lesson. When he fell, he’d suffered a hematoma which was causing pressure in his head and, untreated, would kill him. A neurologist contacted me to explain treatment options. He described relieving the pressure by boring a hole in my Dad’s head. I hesitated and, in a move uncommon for physician’s he asked “What kind of quality of life has your Dad had?” I said simply “None. He’s lost his past.” The doctor hesitated then said “Well if it were my father, I’d let him go.” To this day, I greatly appreciate that doctor sharing from his heart. So that’s what we did. Nothing.

     It’s the kind of decision I don’t wish on anyone yet we all need a person in our lives willing to make that call for us. I am grateful that my dad trusted me with that decision. His regular doctor, also a very kind and compassionate man, kept him comfortable as we waited. Thankfully it didn’t take long.

     I’d made preparations with (again!) the O’Donnell’s. From long distance it was easier. I asked Tom if he still had records from my mother’s funeral. He did and so I said ‘Please do the same for my Dad.”

     It was a smaller funeral in part because, as my Dad would say, “All my friends are dead!” which was only partially true. In any case, he’s back there in Pennsylvania, next to my mother.    

Funerals are for the living. It is a ritual that exists in many forms but in part for the purpose of helping us acknowledge the cycle of life and death.

As Robert Anderson writes at the beginning and end of his play I Never Sang for My Father: “Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship.” Funerals help us take that relationship to the next stage.

Reflection: 1. How have funerals impacted your spiritual journey?

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