This is a piece I wrote ten years ago, remembering family Thanksgivings past, and looking forward to forging new traditions as our parents leave us and our children become adults with families of their own. It still has resonance, so I resurrect it here.
There can be no writing about food on Thanksgiving night. No recipes, no cute ideas about yummy things to make the holiday brighter or suggestions for clever décor that sets off a stunning table for an afternoon and for which storage space must be found the other 364 days of the year. Now that the last platter is washed and put away, the wine glasses are back in their boxes and I’ve made refrigerator space for the tattered remnants of a twenty pound turkey, I’m thinking beyond my overfull stomach and my uncomfortably tight pants to the new challenge of making holidays pleasing and memorable as the cast of characters around the table changes.
As darkness falls, carloads of stuffing-stuffed relatives depart, and the boys head out to spend time with their friends, I’m thinking about the way life goes on as we children of the 1940’s find ourselves on the front line, forced to forge new traditions as we face holidays with empty places and new faces around the table.
Two years ago, we celebrated Thanksgiving at the family farm in Maine. My family—my husband, my two sons, and one girlfriend. My brother John and his wife, their two girls and one boyfriend. All gathered around the old oak table. It was a weird and sad day. My mother, who treasured her hilltop farm and the special treat of having her grandchildren around her, was ten miles away in a rehab facility, too heartbroken to come to the farm for dinner if she had to leave it again at the end of the meal. After dinner, we piled into cars and drove to Camden to see her.
It had been rainy and gray as we went through the ritual of cooking together in Mom’s kitchen in a house without her, but as we loaded our cars for the drive to “The Home” the storm broke. Incredible blue sky sparkled through breathtaking patches of bright and boiling Maxfield Parrish clouds. It was the kind of weather and sky that Mom, who wrote for decades about nature and the seasons and country living, would have described eloquently.
We visited with Mom, who rallied to enjoy her grandchildren’s company, and fed her a piece of pumpkin pie. Then, as the pinks and golds and apricots of the clouds faded into the gloom of a late November afternoon, John’s family headed north and we drove down the wet black road from Maine to Massachusetts.
Two days later, she died. And last Thanksgiving, for the first time in decades, my brother’s family and mine didn’t have dinner together. Too sad to face the absence at the table, he went to his in-laws’ house; I gathered together a table full of orphans—other good friends who didn’t have family for the holiday. Our guests were wonderful, we ate too much good food, and the day was pleasant, but it didn’t quite feel like Thanksgiving.
This year we did a family dinner again, a wonderful event that let me see the family being reconfigured as the children become adults with interesting lives. My niece who is in her first year of teaching talked for hours about the challenges of a difficult third grade and her strategies for managing. She described her fondness for her students, even the ones who can’t sit still and never stop talking. She talked about her exhaustion and the huge amount of prep. Unspoken behind the story was how much she wished her grandmother, who had been a genuinely great teacher, was there to listen and to offer unconditional love and advice.
My other niece spoke of her excitement with a demanding new job that called on computer and design skills not used much since college. She and her fiancé described the new addition on their house and how they’re learning to balance desire with reality as they learn how much it will cost. One son shared his adventures learning to drive a car with a standard transmission on the hills of San Francisco, the other about the process of editing ninety-six hours of film into a two hour movie.
Children no more, these four young adults drifted in and out of the kitchen, making coffee, tasting vegetables, laying out hors d’oeuvres, and sharing their own food preferences, adventures, and stories as Uncle John carved the turkey and they helped get the food to the table. I loved watching them take ownership of the holiday as full-fledged citizens of the adult world. Lisa briskly ties on an apron over her fashionable white blouse and goes to work. A woman confident of her place in the kitchen. Sara Beth photographs me and my brother, tears streaming down our faces and our noses glowing red, as we peel the onions for the creamed onion dish our father insisted was an essential party of any Thanksgiving feast. One niece already has a signature pie. Son Max had made his signature cranberry-apple-orange relish.
Beneath it all, we are all missing my mom, their grandmother, the one who would sit around the table after dinner drawing dragons with her grandchildren. Her emphatic comment about her drawing skills will echo in our minds whenever we try to draw. “I try and I try to draw dragons and every time, they come out looking like fat goats.”
Mom is gone. And my father. And my little sister Sara. But the holiday goes on.
In a few years, we may need a kid’s table. The menu may change to suit the needs of the vegetarians among us. It may lighten as buttery mashed potatoes and gravy and creamy orange squash give way to healthier fare. But I hope we will still be around one table, catching up on news, adding the special people who have joined our children’s lives to the family circle. My stomach is too full tonight but my heart is just full enough.