Thankfully, I got a lesson in gratitude a few days ago. It came from an unexpected source: a big ol’ jug of detergent.

We were out of laundry detergent one evening, with piles of clothing awaiting our attention. Accordingly, I made a quick store run. You probably are familiar with the sort of detergent we buy — it comes in a big container with the screw-top lid that doubles as the measuring cup. Take off that lid and there’s a spout underneath which helps you pour the prescribed amount.

Well, the jug I brought home, we quickly discovered, was lacking the spout. There was only a big gaping hole on top. Actually, I suspect the spout had come detached and was down in the viscous blue liquid. I shrugged and tried to pour out a capful, only to find that globs of detergent issued forth all at once, perfuming my hand, the top of the drier, and some of the floor with blue slime.

Annoyed, I cleaned up what I could and headed back to the store to exchange the defectively-packaged soap. I found myself grumbling as I went—shouldn’t a mass-marketed national brand purchased from a major retailer do better than this? Shouldn’t we get what we pay for?

Well, yes. And the store was very apologetic and gracious in exchanging the bottle. On my way back, I felt a tad guilty for being so bothered by what was, at most, a petty annoyance. Some folks a few miles from our house lost everything in a fire a few days before. How much of a catastrophe was defective detergent?

I thought of an old Johnson Oatman hymn: “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, when you are discouraged thinking all is lost; count you many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

So I stopped to think about the situation. Why did I need detergent in the first place? Because I have healthy, active children who go through a lot of garments in a week. (Arguably too many—I remind them often that a towel can usually be used more than once.) In addition, in the basement we have a machine to wash those clothes with a minimum of effort on our part. That device, so routine today that we take it for granted, was a rich man’s luxury a couple of generations ago, and unheard of a generation before that.

For that matter, we live in a house with electricity and heated water. You probably don’t think about that last one much, unless you suddenly find yourself without it. For most of history, the arduous process of hauling and heating water meant it was an infrequent luxury. We turn a tap, and there it is. Wondrous!

Turn the other tap and we get clean, sanitary cold water, free of waterborne contagions. Millions of our neighbors around the globe lack such a basic necessity.

And, we have clothes to wash! In this place and this day and age our concern about clothing usually centers on how they look, not whether they exist. For much of history, and in many places today, that hasn’t been the case. I reminded myself of T-shirts folded in the closet I haven’t touched in ages, and recalled the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow… I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

I got back home and threw a load in the machine — easily, neatly pouring the detergent — with a revised attitude of gratitude. I went and found an old Garrison Keillor short story I recalled which closed with these words: “Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we don’t love it enough.”

At least on this one day most of us stop to count our blessings, even those with little use for religion. Today you’ll probably gather with loved ones in a warm house and eat more than you should. And most likely you’ll have on clean clothes. Let me suggest one other quiet Thanksgiving ritual for you: pause a moment and sniff your sleeve. Then express thanks for detergent — and the lessons it teaches.

Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.

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