Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday that relies on the comfort of family traditions. The menus, the dishware, the players and the roles they perform are frequently the same from year to year. Covid upended them for a while, but it feels like many of our holiday rituals will now resume.
Not so for our family. For over 40 years, we spent the holiday on the East End of Long Island with our extended family and close friends. This year, our hosts, now in their 80’s, could no longer manage the enormous burden of feeding and entertaining us all. As a result, Larry and I will be having Thanksgiving at home here in Easton with our son, daughter-in-law, and 19-month-old granddaughter. Our reactions to the change in plans were bittersweet. It was the end of one tradition and the beginning of a new one.
The first Thanksgiving we drove out East to visit Paula and Dick, we were a young couple, not yet married and nowhere near as well-off as our hosts. We were ashamed of our beat-up, second-hand Chevy Impala. To look more respectable, Larry took the car for a quickie paint job. The garish red paint was still wet as we made our way out in holiday traffic. Larry drove slower and slower so it would be too dark for our hosts to see us pull into their driveway. We were late, but they were forgiving.
The ensuing Thanksgivings brought many life changes. Grandchildren, great grandchildren, in-laws, divorces, and re-marriages. The place settings kept growing. One year, there were three tables full. But some things remained the same. Eileen always drank too much and by the end of the main course knocked something over. Reed-thin Michelle, beset with food allergies, brought her own food. Amy picked a fight with a different victim every year. One year she yelled at her brother, “Steve, put your shoes back on; nobody wants to look at your bunion.” Apparently the two didn’t speak for months after that.
Coming from the city, we always brought our dogs. Some were better behaved than others, but our hosts never complained. “Ratso has left us a gift in the den,” Dick whispered gently. Another year we brought a friend, who sat too hard on one of their antique chairs and it gave way under him. Paula, ever gracious, said, “We always hated that chair.”
Several months ago we lost Jeff, one of the clan, to cancer. We always sat with him and his family and spent most of the evening engaged in animated conversation. He was frustrated that I didn’t share his enthusiasm for the complicated music of Stephen Sondheim. “How can you not love his work?” he asked with mock outrage. “I like music I can hum,” I told him. We miss him dearly but take comfort that our kids have become close and the familial connection will hold.
No matter how we try to keep our holidays the same, change is inevitable. Some of it is painful, but whatever comes next has the potential for new joy. Presumably as we grow wiser we leave the pettiness behind and imbue in our children the more meaningful aspects of our traditions.
Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks observed, “When you go to Thanksgiving dinner, your image of Uncle Frank contains the memories of past Thanksgivings, the arguments and the jokes, and the whole sum of your common experiences. The guy you once saw as an insufferable blowhard you now see — as your range of associations has widened and deepened — as a decent soul struggling with his wounds.” I found this idea particularly resonant as I looked back on our Thanksgiving history.
All of us at the Courier wish you a happy, healthy, holiday and much to be thankful for.