Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl Opinion Piece in NYT Considers Thankfulness Amid Loss

Courtesy of The New York Times
November 21, 2022

NASHVILLE — My father always had a ready answer to the question that greases the gears of human discourse. Whenever anyone he didn’t know particularly well — a neighbor or a sales clerk or someone at church — would ask, “How are you, Mr. Renkl?” my father didn’t say, “Just fine, thank you.” His answer was always “Fantastic!” Later, when he was dying, it was the answer he gave even to family members checking in. Right up to his death, he was always faaaantastic.

Even before he got sick, this answer was an inexplicable exaggeration. Money was always short in our house, and Mom struggled intermittently with depression, but you would not have known any of that from the way my father greeted others, always with an unexpectedly cheery answer to the throwaway question people asked out of nothing but common courtesy.

I think about my father every day, but I’ve been thinking about him more than usual lately. Not only because Thanksgiving is coming on, that time when the ache of my missing elders is especially acute, but because I am trying to remind myself how to see the world as my father saw it.

“Brew positivity,” the tag on my tea bag tells me, but I am thinking of nothing as simplistic as that. My father was no Panglossian determined to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. Dad grew up during the Great Depression in what was effectively an orphanage. He knew very well that this was not the best of all possible worlds. Nevertheless, he loved his life and was grateful for every minute of it. Somehow he was able to hold the love and the beauty and the joy alongside the grief and the fear and the pain.

Until mid-November, the daily temperatures in Nashville danced around in the 60s and 70s, even hitting 80 from time to time. There were still a few zinnias left in my pollinator garden, and every warm November day the butterflies found them — a beautiful question mark, several gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs, a couple of monarchs, painted lady after painted lady. Not a leaf left on the maple trees, but the garden was full of painted ladies! I kept going outside to look at them. All day long I could not stop smiling.

I wasn’t supposed to be happy about this scenario. It should not be 80 degrees in November, even here in the temperate South. Migrating butterflies like monarchs and painted ladies evolved to travel along a corridor of fall-blooming wildflowers, but wildflowers are mostly gone by November. If not for my zinnias, the butterflies would’ve starved. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” said the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, at COP27, the global climate conference, in early November. It was not an overstatement.

Read the full essay here.