Thursday, November 11, 2010

This is my favorite Thanksgiving-themed illustration by Norman Rockwell, Cousin Reginald Catches the Thanksgiving Turkey ( circa 1920). Not the lavishly detailed one showing Grandma proudly serving a succulent roasted turkey to an adoring family, or the one where the bird is being carved and the kids are having an orgasm over the thought of their own crispy drumstick, or even the one where heads are bowed in prayer over the modest dinner set on the table in a tiny roadside restaurant. No, dandy Cousin Reginald, clothed in his city slicker Sunday Best being chased across the farmyard by a turkey nearly his own size while his country cousins and their dog cheer for the bird (and you know they are!) is my favorite holiday Rockwell for this time of year. Why? Because it's believable. Because it reminds me that my cousins were once just like this...because I was that citified kid once-upon-a-time, and I can relate. Because there's more irony and truth in the painting where the kid is being chased by his intended meal than the one where the freckle-faced kid with the big ears and his whole goofy family are gawking at the perfect Thanksgiving dinner could ever convey for me. Because in real life things don't always go as you planned, sometimes you get laughed at, and you're forced to make a hasty retreat  empty-handed for all your effort, no matter how much bravado you manage to muster...and it continues to be that way for all time.

My grandparents spent the first part of my childhood trying to replicate a Norman Rockwell existence. They grew up in a world illustrated and interpreted by him . His idealism made them forget how dirt poor their neighbors and they really were: family life-the American Way-was raised up in all it's blue-collar glory on the cover of Life magazine during the war and post-war years.Never mind that you turned in the collars and cuffs of your favorite clothing so they'd wear longer and were darning your socks. They looked to those magazine covers to see who they were instead of the mirror because their real, everyday existence was too drab and painful to have stare back at them. They strived  to become the personification of Life magazine according to the Gospel of Rockwell. It gave them hope for the future, but meanwhile, life didn't look too bad. They believed it was how things were supposed to look and be, and they knocked themselves out recreating the family gatherings  portrayed.  Forget that we had to eat spaghetti every Wednesday night  because it was the only way we could possibly afford a holiday dinner later. The few 'found' dollars we had from eating  prudently was put into Pop's Christmas Club savings account from work, and they financed the Rockwell-style gatherings we had for the aunts, uncles and cousins at Thanksgiving and Christmastime.

I'm not knocking Norman Rockwell at all- he was an excellent artist. He understood what was in the heart of the Common Man and celebrated those little moments that made life bearable because we could gaze upon his paintings and know what we shared in the struggle. He celebrated diversity and praised patriotism. He was ahead of his time by portraying women in all walks of life-as factory and farm workers, professional teachers and nurses -even in war zones- not just as mothers, girlfriends and grandmothers ( but he did that, too). His illustrations and paintings showed real people-faces lined from worry, wrinkled from harsh farm work and age, hair of all colors, styles and conditions, and well-worn clothing old and new. He knew us, and maybe that's why my grandparents trusted his ideal. I none of the magazine  I've looked at recently reflect my life or who I am, and it almost feels like an intrusion to view them rather than an invitation to flip through their pages. The models are all pretentiously posed and seemingly bored with their existence.They are Photo Shopped into perfection.

Maybe the real reason why I love Cousin Reginald Catches the Thanksgiving Turkey  is because it reminds me that you shouldn't take things for granted, and that when you paint the picture that is your life, you should do it with as much detail as possible, and that the colors you use can be subtle to get your point across. Life was once simpler, and we can still have that picture if we consider what needs to be included in the composition and leave all the distractions out.

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