Dennis Downey

Dennis Downey

We shall meet but we shall miss him,

There will be one vacant chair.

We shall linger to caress him

While we breathe our evening prayer.

— Henry S. Washburn, Thanksgiving 1861

As Henry S. Washburn’s Civil War-era poem suggests, the custom of the vacant chair evokes powerful emotions in families across America, especially around the holidays.

Washburn wrote of 18-year-old John William Grout’s death at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia and the sense of loss his Massachusetts family felt as they gathered weeks later on Thanksgiving.

The verse has been set to music as a traditional ballad and recorded by many folk artists. The haunting lyrics evoke sadness and grief over the faithfully departed, with some knowledge they shall not hear his voice nor feel his gentle touch again. Dirges from the pine and cypress/Mingle with the tears we shed.

Whether in war or peace, some sudden tragedy or prolonged illness, families can identify with the image of the “vacant chair” and a spouse, parent, child, sister or brother — a beloved — now absent from the table as we gather to give thanks. “Gone but not forgotten” goes the old expression. A stillness lingers that is not welcome. Memory, like love, is a very human trait, and so are the enduring connections that evoke meaning and order our lives.

For too many families, 2020 has turned out to be, to one degree or another, an annus horribilis (year of misfortune). The raucous election cycle, an intractable partisanship, a fragile economy and exaggerated inequality gap, and bitter divisions over race and rights have conspired to make this an exceptional year in America’s perpetual state of becoming.

Nothing, however, compares with the staggering human toll of the global pandemic.

It was a year ago when the first case emerged in China, and so far more than 56 million people globally have been infected with COVID-19. Nationally and locally, hospitalization rates are stretched to capacity, and supply chains are running low again. In the past 10 months, more than 11.7 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than a quarter-million have died. In parts of Lancaster County, the positivity rate approaches 10% of those tested. Amid this viral surge, it is “deja vu all over again.”

2020 has been a year of anguish and heartbreak for those who have lost loved ones or been isolated from family members quarantined in nursing homes, group homes and other congregate-care settings. Their sense of helplessness is real and has tugged on the heartstrings of a nation accustomed to its abundance and sense of providential blessing. The feeling of absence and loss this Thanksgiving — the presence of the vacant chair — is palpable. In this holiday season of COVID-19, there is nothing normal in the so-called “new normal” we face on a daily basis.

Traditionally, Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest travel season of the year. Interstate highways are choked with traffic, airline reservations are at their limit, and the Amtrak rails are beleaguered by long lines, missed connections and delays. Wayfarers hurry and scurry to get home to share the bounty of turkey and fixings with each other, houses of worship open their kitchens to feed the homeless and hungry, and food pantries and distribution centers rush to prepare meals for those in need.

This year, to quote Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “all is changed ... utterly changed.” Thanksgiving will be different as public health advisories discourage people from traveling, gathering in confined spaces and meeting in large groups. Many people will elect to forgo the richness of fellowship and hospitality with friends and family.

As in Washburn’s poem, the lilt of laughter and easy repose will be as vacant as the chair, and the opportunity to gaze across the table and exchange banter will be muted. Many families, like my own, have canceled plans for multigenerational gatherings. These are the troubled times we live in, this age of uncontrolled pandemic.

Well-founded fear and dread have gripped many as the deadly contagion spreads and the risks of exposure mount. For people who live on the margins, who have known the dislocation of prolonged unemployment and homelessness due to the virus, and for those who historically have struggled to overcome prejudice and poverty, the experience of this holiday will be especially dispiriting.

And yet ... and yet, hope rises like a prayer —\!q or as poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama told an audience gathered virtually by Lancaster’s St. James Episcopal Church, it rises as a “desire” of the soul. Thanksgiving can and should be a time to pause and reflect and be grateful. For what? For the mere gift of being. If we have learned one thing this year it is that, like it or not, human societies (including our own) are bound together in a web of mutuality. What affects others affects us, the collective we. Such sentiment is not folly, and it is not naive; it is born in the heart of what it means to be human. History and the history of pandemics prove the point.

John Steinbeck wrote that when the “I becomes we,” then community and hospitality have a chance. This Thanksgiving we have the opportunity to do for each other by practicing a mindfulness born of gratitude.

To paraphrase a recent blog posting: We isolate now, so when we gather again no one is missing. We do this with the hope there will be fewer vacant chairs. This may be small solace for many individuals and families who acutely feel the isolation and loneliness of this particular season. Think of it as an investment in health — our own and each other’s mental health and physical well-being.

So, come this Thanksgiving in this altered season of our world, love and memory endure. So too does the possibility of grace in troubled times. My prayer and my desire is that we embrace the wisdom and generosity of spirit to care for one another, be thankful, and to quote another poet, “count all our blessings and remember our dreams.”

Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University. His most recent publication is “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights” (Penn State Press 2020).