When I was a kid, my parents used to have this thing called a "freebie". A freebie was basically a meal where we wouldn't have to say grace before digging in. Generally these freebies were smaller meals, or snacks, nothing too formal. Most often freebies occurred after church on sunday. Sunday mornings in our house growing up were a site to see. 6 people getting ready with one shower between us, going to 2 separate church services (catholic-dad and evangelical-mom). We kids were pulled between going to church with mom or dad, but eventually my parents settled on all kids going to church with mom while dad went to his own catholic service by himself first, then went to the evangelical service with the rest of the family. You've got to give him credit for sucking it up for the family by going to church twice every sunday (especially with that whole catholic/protestant angst). I always hated the fact the we had to choose between the two. I preferred to go to church with dad because he wasn't as crazy and in-your-face about his faith, but I couldn't stand the monotony of the catholic service and the memorization. It felt like it had no heart, like people didn't really care or understood what they were saying. At least the evangelicals had guitars and drums and stuff, as a kid I preferred that because it was at least slightly more entertaining. Anyways, I digress... After a long morning of church-related activities and passionate discussion between my parents about the sermons driving home, many times we would stop at Dunkin Donuts for a dozen donuts to have as a snack when we got home. These were always freebies and I always looked forward to eating them without having to say grace. This may be the reason I still have a sweet tooth for donuts, maybe subconsciously I associate them with that same "freebie" state of mind. We would even plead sometimes to get out of saying grace like it was a punishment, "please, mom can this be a freebie?".
The term freebie always had a weird connotation to it though, like we were getting away with something we knew we shouldn't be. Like the other times when we had to pray to god, that those weren't freebies, that they were somehow charges or fees. Who decided that god didn't need to be thanked for a freebie like he should be thanked at every other meal?
When I was real little I remember reciting the catholic grace every time before we ate: Bless us, oh lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty through christ our lord, amen. Once mom had her "conversion" and was "born again", dad started saying grace for the family and would make it up on the spot at each meal. He was always an eloquent speaker and you could tell he really put thought into what we should be thankful for each time we ate. He would be sure to mention guests if they were over, and any special events coming up or recently passed, family members under the weather, etc. For real special occasions, he would even prepare notes or research topics to make a really impactful presentation of grace. Actually, they were quite beautiful. As much as I hated having to wait for the food (and wished for another freebie) and would feel totally self conscious about grace if we ever went out to eat, I do look back now and think about how nice it was to pause and really think about things we were thankful for in this life. I'm glad that my father took the time to make grace a thoughtful reflection.
Now that I am older and have since realized that there is no reason to thank an imaginary man in the sky for any of it, I still find it is nice to take a few moments (even quietly to yourself) and think about all the things that you are thankful for. Thankful for a job in this economy to be able to put food on the table, thankful for the hands that worked to bring that food to the table, thankful for the animals and plants that gave their lives so that we could have sustenance, thankful for the company and the conversation, thankful for the family members who mean so much to you, thankful to live in a country where you can be free to believe or not believe what you want, thankful for the men and women in uniform who sacrifice so you can enjoy those freedoms, all the reasons that make life good. While it is nice to have freebies, it is also important to actually take the time to reflect on all the good things in life. As thanksgiving comes up in a few weeks, when as a national holiday people are tuned in to be thankful for a day, let us try not to forget that mentality during the rest of the year. Grace before dinner doesn't have to be a religious thing. It can very much be a secular thing, a reminder that life is fragile and short so take the time to recognize the reasons you are where you are in life. Freebies are great, but take time to appreciate the things and people that sacrificed so you can live and be grateful for wonderful friends and family who make life enjoyable.