Giving Thanks

Dallas' Thanks-Giving Square Offers Holiday Respite

"It's important ..." she said, her voice breaking, her thoughts drifting some place else perhaps. "It's important," she began again, "for people to have a place like this. A place to come together and be together as one, the way ... as one ..." Her words broke. She took a breath and continued as if she were privately practicing oratory or praying alone in her room. "Together as one." Her words trailed off as she paused to take another breath and smile. She was focused keenly on her point, and made it through the stuttering and the distractions and maybe, if we were sensing correctly, some bittersweet memories. "The way it was intended."

An urban center is a lonely place to be on Thanksgiving Day. Folks tend to retreat to the comfort of kith and kin for special holidays, leaving the jump and scramble of the city far behind, if but for one day.

We've experienced our share of holidays alone wandering empty city streets. And for some reason, the howl of autumn's wind through a deserted downtown doesn't compound the feeling of missing family and friends as much as it provides strange solace.

We've come to crave it.

Dallas is virtually dead on Thanksgiving Day. Empty. Vacant. And we've found it to be an odd but wonderful Turkey Day destination. Aside from the holiday's usual proximity to the anniversary of the assassination of JFK (Dallas, of course being the site of that fateful event), The Big D is also home to a small patch of sanctity and tranquility called, of all things, Thanks-Giving Square.

What's now known as Thanks-Giving Square began in 1961 as an idea to dedicate a public space in honor of an admirable human value (although at the time, they hadn't yet chosen one in particular). Over the next few years, it was determined that "Thanks-Giving" would be the theme and the name, and the city of Dallas set aside an acre of prime downtown real estate to celebrate it. Over the next decade, the mission of the space would be defined, refined, and divined as one that explores the global traditions and manifestations of giving thanks for life's bounty. The chapel at Thanks-Giving Square opened in 1976 and its resident Center for World Thanksgiving at Thanks-Giving Square, an international nonprofit institute devoted to conducting research about gratitude in all religions and cultures and to the gathering, sharing, and promoting of thanks-giving globally, was officially established in 1981.

The "square" itself is actually a triangle, 3.5 acres of downtown Dallas bordered by Bryan, Pacific, Akard, and Ervay streets. Its most compelling centerpiece, the oddly tiered, white marble Chapel of Thanksgiving was designed by world-renowned architect Philip Johnson. The chapel's ambitious spiral implies a renewable, almost perpetual source of motion as the building unfolds around itself on its heavenward trek. The chapel's 60-foot-high winding ceiling brings light from above through a twisting nautilus of stained-glass panels called the Glory Window -- one of the world's largest horizontally mounted stained-glass works. According to the chapel's literature, "designed by French artist Gabriel Loire, the window symbolizes the blessing of the Divine descending to earth as well as the ascent of human praise and gratitude to God." Outside, the grounds are a maze of curious culverts, fountains, bridges, and walkways, and a mosaic of Norman Rockwell's beloved painting The Golden Rule, similar to the one at the United Nations building in New York, graces one wall. The park also features the Bell Tower, four monoliths, and the gold-leafed 14-foot Ring of Thanks.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through the multicultural shrine to all faiths. On this particular Thanksgiving (1997), my son and I comprised the handful of people who wandered the meditative space.

It was little Michael's first Thanksgiving away from family in Florida, so I wanted to do something special. He had recently completed a report on John F. Kennedy for school. When he reached the end of his research, he came to me tearfully, outraged at the conclusion of the story. In his fourth-grade indignation, he shouted, "Why would anyone kill such a great man?" The story kept him rapt. It seemed fitting that we should pay our respects in November, in Dallas, where history would come alive.

In my search for affordable overnight accommodations in the town with a reputation for the pricey, I stumbled upon an attraction listing for Thanks-Giving Square. It was sealed. Our Thanksgiving Day would be spent in Dallas. Hotel and even the big meal itself took a backseat to the notion of spending time in the square named for the holiday and a trip to Dealey Plaza.

Amtrak offered incredibly cheap roundtrip fares and Dallas' DART light rail could get us just about anywhere we wanted to venture downtown, so I decided to leave the car behind. The train trip itself takes the better part of the day, but the luxury of traveling carefree and car-free made it worth the time.

The train deposits travelers at Union Station, right under Dallas' 50-story Reunion Tower skyline fixture and within blocks of Dealey Plaza, the Sixth Floor Museum in the old Texas Book Depository, and the West End Marketplace. It only costs $2 to take in the sights from the Reunion Tower's tri-level geodesic sphere, so we did. We decided, however, to forego Dealey Plaza for the next day, as this was Thanksgiving proper and we wanted to get to Thanks-Giving Square before dusk.

The gray chill held a storm in her clouds, but just enough of the westward sun peeked through to make the city shine in that brilliant orange-gold that only overcast days can paint. Dallas boasts a gorgeous downtown, and this day we had it all to ourselves. Having walked in the cold for too many of the wrong blocks, we hailed one of the few cabs about and headed directly to the square.

When we reached the triangle tract, we gave thanks, not because of an arduous journey, but because the peaceful park exceeded our expectations. Even Michael, eager to get out and run around, kept respectfully silent and solemn. We discussed religion and beliefs and took pictures of each other under the Ring of Thanks. As we made our way under the elevated walkway that takes visitors from the Chapel and out into the gardens, we heard a commotion -- a yelp really, and then a cackle.

"Oh my goodness! Oh my Lord!" she cried and laughed as the wind whipped off her hat and upended the cluster of bags she was carrying. Ever the Boy Scout, Michael fetched the hat from our level and then raced up the winding maze to help her. I could see as she made her way down, that she was a woman -- older than she first appeared to be -- who carried her age well, with dignity and grace. She looked appropriately stylish for Dallas and for the holiday. We were still in baggy traveling clothes.

As she came closer, it became clear that there was a good chance that this was her most fancy outfit and that the bags she carried contained most of her earthly possessions. She was so impressed with Michael's chivalry (and I must interject to brag here for a moment that he passed two grown men on his way to help) that she asked if we would mind stopping for a chat.

The three of us spent the better part of the next hour discussing faith, education methods, the importance of family, alien abductions, conspiracy theories, and why it is so important for single mothers to be strong for their sons. Her patter would shift from stammering, distracted repetition to Maya Angelou eloquence with compelling regularity. With the same frequency, she would break from blissful grins to profound melancholy.

We asked each other about holiday plans and whether or not we had places to go for the big meal. I acted like we did, despite not yet having figured out that part of the deal. She said she had to get to her sister's but was afraid that she wouldn't make it. It suddenly felt improper to ask why. I did, however, ask if she needed a ride and if we could offer her a cab. She reached out and held my arm. "Thank you, darling, but you must take care of your boy." We stared into each other's eyes for a moment. Hers glistened. I smiled, as she got up and began to gather her cumbersome load.

"I am so happy I came here today," she said with a certainty that hadn't been present though much of the conversation. She smiled and nodded. "This place ..." Her voice softened. "This place, we can all share. It is so important for us all to share."

Later that night, Michael and I took in the decadence of Dallas' cheesy commercial West End, enjoying every drop of virtual reality machines and arcade games. The only place we could afford a proper Thanksgiving was at the unthinkable Planet Hollywood. I gave in. Surprisingly, the loud and glitzy Hollywood Babylon offered a remarkably delicious and appropriate turkey with dressing, especially prepared that night by some thoughtful chef stuck on duty.

As I sat, watching my son thoroughly enjoy his small cheese pizza and the looming Terminator nearby, I thought about that woman. I hoped with all my heart that she was finally home. end story

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Thanksgiving Day, Thanks-Giving Square, Dallas, Texas Travel, Amtrak, JFK, Dealey Plaza, Philip Johnson, Glory Window, United Nations, Norman Rockwell

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