Finding Meaning: Ancestors at that First Thanksgiving?

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By Skip Hellewell

The family’s getting together for Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition with menu and recipes etched in stone. Two guests want to bring something, but what if their candied sweet potato recipe differs from ours? This left me pondering the first Thanksgiving dinner of the Pilgrims, grateful for a harvest to last the coming winter, and the Wampanoag Tribe, who taught them how to plant. You may have had an ancestor there. About one-fourth of Indy readers do.

Our family had two: George Soule, a sort of valet to “Mayflower” leader Edward Winslow and a signer of the Mayflower Compact, and Marie Chilton, whose parents died the first winter, leaving her a 13-year-old orphan facing a new world. It’s a tradition to remember Soule and Chilton at our Thanksgiving. Another tradition is Skip’s Homemade Cranberry Sauce, which is much better than the stuff in the store (contact Skip at the email below for a free copy). During dessert, we go around the table, each expressing what we’re most thankful for in the past year. Here’s my top two for 2022.  

I’m thankful to former Laguna Beach Indy editor Andrea Adelson for taking a chance nearly five years ago on a rookie columnist with a dubious proposition—a column about meaning informed by faith. My argument, as I recall, was that over 80 percent of Americans self-identify as religious according to surveys, plus there were 14 churches in Laguna, each a community within itself, and this audience was generally ignored. Shouldn’t the Indy cover topics important to them with a column I would write? Chutzpah.

Religion is a tough topic for newspapers—their forte is the real world as it happens. They give us, per the Washington Post’s late Phil Graham, “the first rough draft of history.” Religion is about faith in things unseen and how to live in the present for a possible future. Adelson thought about my proposal, agreed to try a couple of columns and even gave me a “byline.” I was such a rookie I didn’t know what a byline was, but I started writing. The columns were well received and Adelson, an excellent editor who knew the town, later commented, “I didn’t know there was all this interest in religion.”

The column “Finding Meaning” incorporated an unseen third party, the “Beautiful Wife.” Confession: The BW idea was borrowed from the nationally syndicated “New York Times” columnist Earl Wilson, who I read as a child. Wilson covered New York nightlife with his BW in tow. He originally called her the “barefoot wife,” but that didn’t please her, so he changed. I didn’t make that mistake.

All of this leads to the second thing I’m thankful for—the BW. We attended the same college, but I still had a year to go when she graduated and began teaching in Sacramento. There were a lot of lovely girls on campus, but there was a special “something” about her that I missed. Coming home for Thanksgiving, a big event in my large family, I decided to propose. When I popped the question, she, without really thinking it through, was agreeable. Looking back over the years, I marvel that she found merit in an engineering student who carried a slide rule, drove a 1960 Studebaker (got it for $160 at auction), and could only afford a tiny diamond.

One more thing: There’s an award given annually in Laguna for “contributions of a spiritual nature.” It’s based on the global Templeton Award, a $1.3 million prize first given to Mother Theresa but also to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Laguna’s version will be awarded this Sunday (without the $1.3 million) at the 4 p.m. Thanksgiving service at United Methodist Church sponsored by Laguna’s Interfaith Council. Come see who’s making a difference. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” You can email him at [email protected].

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