The Nun Study investigated the process of aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in 700 nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame. What made this study unusual was that in 1930 these same nuns, who were then in their twenties, were asked to write a brief autobiography setting out their reasons for entering the convent. The 2001 results found that those nuns who had expressed positive emotions in their 1930 write-ups, including love, hope, and gratitude, were much more likely to be alive and well 60 years later. The increase in life expectancy was as much as seven years.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites complained about the lack of food and water in the desert, about the manna, and about the dangers they faced from the Egyptians during the Exodus. Moses warned that an even bigger danger would be a lack of gratitude once they had arrived in the Promised Land. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them . . . do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”
The Carter family (the famous Depression-era singing group who sang “Keep On the Sunny Side”) lived in an area of Virginia called Poor Valley where the ground was rocky and thin. (Next door was Rich Valley, which offered deep, loamy soil.) Even though some of their instruments were homemade—the harmonica was a comb with a piece of paper pulled tight across it—there was always music. The fiddler warmed up in the morning with “Pine Dreams,” “Soap Suds,” or “Johnny Put the Kettle On and We’ll All Have Tea.” For an impromptu Saturday night party, the furniture was carried out into the yard so folks would have a place to dance.
I live part-time in the Vermont equivalent of Poor Valley. Many of the town’s 940 residents were born in their own homes. Sherman’s Country Store is all penny candy, hot dogs, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and toilet paper. The firehouse is the center of the town’s social life: Old Home Day carnival, chicken dinners, and barbecues. Some front porches are bric-a-brac dumping grounds, featuring threadbare sofas that drip their stuffing. We still have a 300-head working dairy farm. The “honey truck” is often seen going up and down Main Street on its way to spray liquid manure on a corn or hay field. We offer a weigh-in station for big game right next to the derelict gas pumps, which feature a sign reading, “Regular, $8.30/gal”—a local joke that keeps tourists from stopping.
Right up the road is Rich Valley, a well-known Vermont hamlet with a golf course, a well-stocked country store populated by more New Yorkers than Vermonters, antique stores, a half-dozen postcard-perfect inns, a summer stock theater, a kitchen equipment outlet, and an outdoors farmers’ market.
Just last weekend, someone asked me why I live in Poor Valley instead of the richer town to the north. Our town is a pretty town, a long strip of valley with a high ridge of rugged Vermont mountains on one side and low hills running down to New York State on the other, but it has its rough edges, like the double-wide trailer just north of town with the refrigerator in the front yard. It’s a small town where folks volunteer at the drop of a hat, whether it’s for the rescue squad, the firehouse, or to run the French fry booth at the annual carnival. Yet gossip is the town’s currency. There is no shortage of feuds, slights, and jealousies. And our town is no stranger to tragedy—logging accidents and worse. Some residents have already erected their own tombstones in the cemetery by Main Street in public acceptance of the inevitable.
The reason to live in such a town is gratitude. A hard life is balanced by the joy of life. Tragedy is offset by community. Anger is suppressed with forgiveness. Stupidity is upended with laughter. In Rich Valley, many are proud of their success. In Poor Valley, folks are proud of their town.
Abraham Lincoln set aside a day in November to celebrate Thanksgiving. The Civil War—“the lamentable strife,” in Lincoln’s words—had devastated this country, and he urged all citizens to pursue a course of “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” looking to the Almighty Hand for the full “enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” He reminded us that our well-being is not entirely of our own making, that our happiness and success cannot be entirely ascribed to personal industry.
Starting with Lincoln, tales of Thanksgiving are, of course, stories of gratitude. A Mrs. Hulda Esther Thorpe remembered “one of the best Thanksgiving dinners we ever knew.” A family of prairie settlers in the 1800s was sitting down to the Thanksgiving feast. A group of outlaws “came in silently and just shoved the folks back and ate up the dinner.” After they were gone, the “women made a big cornbread and with what few things that were left, they had a feast.” They were all deeply thankful that they were spared.
Sometimes, though, the best stories about gratitude are built around a character who is spectacularly ungrateful. A Vermont farmer had been married for thirty years and often compared his wife’s cooking with his mother’s, not in his wife’s favor. One Thanksgiving his wife went all out to prepare the perfect feast, one that would be better than her mother-in-law’s. The farmer sat down to the Thanksgiving table and ate with great relish. After he was done, his wife said, “Well, you seemed to like that meal well enough.”
Her husband thought a bit, running the major items over in his mind. “‘Twas good,” he allowed at last. “The turkey was roasted just right and the dressing was well seasoned. The mashed potatoes were smooth and good. The other vegetables was done just the way I like them and even the pie and the pudding was good. But the gravy—that gravy . . . well, Mother’s gravy always had lumps in it!” Enjoy the day. Be grateful. Happy Thanksgiving!