Thanksgiving has always been a favorite holiday for our family. This is in part because of the food. I do love my turkey, mashed potatoes and dressing followed by a good nap. My mom and my husband are the turkey preparers. The job of the mashed potatoes has rotated through the years between our son and cousin, Brett. Then there are the pies, specially purchased, yes, purchased, for the occasion. And nothing compares with the brownies with the candy baked inside that Cousin Barb brings. My sister makes the coffee cakes for the watching of the morning parade. I make the cranberry salad and the family tradition of black cherry Jello molded salad. Everyone else brings side dishes and salads so those vary a bit from year to year.
Many of the dishes bring memories of those who are no longer here to gather with us either because of death or the physical distance between us. It is Aunt Carol’s coffee cake recipe. My great-aunt Gert’s cherry Jello. My sister-in-law is the one who introduced the cranberry salad. Uncle Dick was the gravy expert, now passed on to others. All of it a delicious combination of flavorful connections to generations past and those who have gathered around the table over the years.
Beginning in 2003 when we formed our intergenerational home with my sister and mom, Thanksgiving was hosted in our new house. My mom’s sister, Carol, who had hosted the holiday for the previous 20 years had just passed away. In our intergeneration house, we could have an up to 30 people gather for the feast around two expanded tables. As many as 23 would spend the night. All couches were occupied. All beds were full. Air mattresses were inflated. And children under 12 had sleeping spaces in sleeping bags on the floor. It was a house full of breathing and laughing and eating and playing games and walking off the calories of the holiday.
My guess is that it is also one of my favorite holidays because it is not a religious holiday. Since my husband and I were co-pastors serving in a congregational setting during those years, the fact that we didn’t have extra worship services to prepare helped to make it really feel like a holiday!
It was also the only time each year that we saw some of these family members who came from Indiana and Cleveland and Cincinnati to our home hear Columbus, Ohio. During those decades the family grew. Add in several marriages and the addition of a new generation with 7 children and the holiday increased in size and volume and chaos and breathing and laughing. A slightly larger turkey. Additional vegetarian dishes. An extra side dish or two and there were always some leftovers.
More than just one meal
The challenge was not the Thanksgiving meal itself that could make the hosting a challenge. It was the additional breakfasts and a lunch or two in addition to what to eat on Friday night that really increased the hosting stress.
Also, during those twenty years of hosting the holiday, we all experienced the joys and challenges that can come with aging. For some, the heightened noise in the house with the increased number of people can be a challenge. Particularly for those who have hearing loss. The extraneous noises can make hearing table conversations difficult.
For others, the weight of being responsible for all the details is exhausting. Even with detailed notes from years past, it can feel stressful trying to be sure everyone’s needs are met.
Those traditions were interrupted in the past two years with the pandemic. 2020 will be one of our all-time most unexpected Thanksgivings ever. My sister and brother-in-law are owners of a craft brewery. With the brewery closed on Thanksgiving, my mom, sister, daughter, spouse and I gathered in that large empty space being careful to keep our distance. The pre-cooked food was heated in Crockpots, and we laughed and ate and played games and drank some beer (not a part of previous Thanksgiving meals).
Last year, our kids and their partners were with us, so we celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas in the span of a couple of days, still a relatively small gathering. This also meant putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving—a previous taboo in my view!
So, perhaps our new normal is all about changing traditions and breaking taboos. This year, my sisters, mom, husband, brother-in-law and myself decided to continue to change-up Thanksgiving. We no longer live in the large intergenerational house, so the extended family gathering is not possible in the same way. Our kids are spending the holiday with their respective partner’s families. So, we opted for something completely different. We are spending the holiday near the ocean in South Carolina.
We will dine on Thanksgiving Day at the Hard Rock Café where they will have everything except mashed potatoes. There will only be 6 of us around the table—no need for leaves to extend it from one end of the room to the other. We will undoubtedly have at least one of aunt Carols’ coffee cakes with us. We will also make and take along our own batch of Cousin Barb’s brownies. We will have cards and board games around which we will laugh and play in between walks on the chilly beach.
Undoubtedly, we will remember our past celebrations and think of those who are not able to join us at the table anymore. We will enjoy a quieter time together and see new sights. And of course, there will be video calls with those gathering in other homes as we extend our love across the miles. (And just to be completely honest, there is a small turkey in the freezer at home for Dave and I to enjoy early in December since we will not have the usual left overs!)
Throughout these changes in the traditions centered around feasting and celebrations, we find ways to be grateful for gift of food and laughter, love and joy. We will take time to appreciate the previous patterns and find joy in the new ways we will gather. Because ultimately, it is not about continuing past traditions for the sake of the tradition but finding the right ways to experience love that fits best with wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey.
Blessings as you remember and savor, give thanks and share the gifts of life that sustain you in this year.