Sweet Honey in the Rock – Judah Duke’s Thanksgiving

What surprised me—and set this Thanksgiving apart from seasons past–was how readily my folks took to it. Of course, there was still the gaping difference in our world views and the questions I have about my parents’ beliefs. But this year, for the first time, we spent Thanksgiving in  New York, far from my family’s natural habitat in the rolling prairies and rural towns that speckle the 200-mile expanse between Dallas and Austin. They were here for four days, and I wanted to show them all of the city that I could, while offering some semblance of a life that I’ve made for myself these past two years since I moved away from home.  

Growing up, Thanksgiving meant my grandparents’ big house in the Dallas suburbs. It was the long table with our names on little plates and running around the woods and creek that waited behind the back fence. My aunts and uncles and cousins would all be there, and our whole family always sang “Sweet Honey in the Rock”, an old acapella spiritual or folk song whose origins are unknown, right after the prayer and just before eating.  

I am descended, on both sides of my extended family, from a long line of preachers, missionaries, teachers and musicians. My dad was the pastor of a small church in Granbury, an inconsequential town outside of Fort Worth, for almost 30 years before my parents divorced last year. He continues teaching history at Granbury’s private Christian school. My mother was the librarian but is now the administrative assistant. 

I started to become less religious during high school, sometime after I bought my own phone behind my parents’ back; it was a technology my parents thoroughly disapproved of. I learned so much more on the internet than I was taught at home or at school; the new ideas I was discovering about evolution, secular philosophy and more went well with my growing skepticism. I guess it didn’t surprise them much when I moved across the country on my own just a month after graduating high school. 

This was the first Thanksgiving we spent together since I left home. I took the family down near the Rockefeller Center, where my parents scoffed at how the screaming modernity of the Saks Fifth Avenue light show clashed with St. Patrick’s somber and towering regality. We went to the Museum of Natural History, where my parents were quietly dismissive of the Hall of Human Origins but loved the animal dioramas.

From the left, my sister Hope, me and my mom and dad.

We had Thanksgiving dinner at my apartment in Jersey City. My girlfriend Yihan and I picked up a huge order of food from Walmart. Although we had just moved in together, and I had lived in Queens only two weeks ago, I was sure we could make it work to have my family over. I was waiting for my parents to say something about the two of us living together, but they didn’t – leaving me to wonder whether they simply kept their disapproval to themselves or were becoming more accepting of it.

When the food was all prepared and organized, we sat down at a table we had commandeered in one of my building’s common rooms. My mom’s parents weren’t there, so Dad went ahead and tore through the usual exhortation of God’s faithfulness to our family for generations. The reminders of how our great grandmother Esther stowed away in a freighter to Japan one day in the 50’s, and how she apparently helped rescue geisha girls from slavery. How my great-great-grandfather Leonard Coote founded a Baptist bible college in San Antonio that taught thousands of students until losing accreditation in the 90’s. The old stories didn’t go well with the modern stylings and sharp-edged corners of the room’s decor.  

Instead of the usual spiritual song, we cooked up a short prayer, then started eating. I once again tried to convince the family that Trump was a crook and that climate change is soon to cause mass extinction events. My brother Adam, the accountant, and I discussed where the money from FTX might have gone. Hope and Yihan talked about the green mountains near Yihan’s hometown in China. It was my girlfriend’s first time eating turkey, not to mention green bean casserole, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. She loved it—or so she said. 

Much has changed since our last Thanksgiving together. The divorce brought my siblings and I closer together, even though Hope is the only one who hasn’t moved out of the house. This Thanksgiving, right before the pumpkin pie was cut, my dad re-proposed to my mom. It was quick, and not exactly emotional or unexpected when Mom said yes.   

I have an inclination to read into this Thanksgiving more than I should. While others view the edifice of time as marked by various human events, my family counts the way we’ve made it through hard times as reflecting  God’s faithfulness. It’s a faith in a covenant that, as long as we serve him, the lord will uplift us in our struggles, as per some strange cosmic arrangement. 

The words to our ubiquitous Thanksgiving spiritual, “Sweet Honey in the Rock” — “Come taste and see, that the lord is good, for it tastes like honey in the rock” — used to drive me crazy with their forced meanings. But this Thanksgiving, its absence confirmed that this Thanksgiving would not be the same as any other we’ve had.  

The changes to the world and to my family have constantly wrought uncertainties. While my family answers it with their belief, I’ve met uncertainty with — well, not much.  

Nonetheless, looking beyond the confusion that my family’s juxtaposition with the city’s environment brought, this Thanksgiving also affirmed that my family will always be there for me. Even if there’s unspoken disapproval, we can try to understand each other, and that’s more than I’d ever hoped to expect. 

My brother Adam and his wife Maci.
Me and my nephew, Jesse.