A blogger friend’s recent post about traditions started me thinking about my own traditions with family and friends and how they’ve changed over the years.
As a child, and well into my young adulthood, I spent Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, my childhood home. The menu was classic and rarely varied: a big fat roasted turkey, stuffed full of sage and sausage dressing; potatoes and gravy; fruit salad; cranberry sauce; and some combination of vegetables, usually green beans, creamed onions, or cauliflower. Sometimes, Mother made sweet potatoes or squash. And there was usually a veggie tray and a divided dish with black olives (Mother being the only one who ate them after Grandma passed away) and pickles.
Of course, the meal was not complete without dessert — apple and pumpkin pies, for which my mother was renowned. Quite the feast! And that was for the early, big dinner – later on, at supper, it was time for turkey sandwiches and pie (for which we had been too full before). Oh my goodness!
I come from a big family, and I always looked forward to these holidays with my parents, because it meant that I would see most, if not all, of my siblings and their families. I relished the house full of loved ones, the Macy’s parade and football games on TV in the background, the chatter and laughter of my sisters, and the children underfoot and overhead in the upstairs bedrooms. The roasting turkey’s aroma, mingled with coffee, pumpkin, and pickles was a familiar and welcome bouquet.
When the bird was done and plattered, it joined the rest of the dishes on the table and we were called to “Wash up!” and “Come and eat!” Those of us with aprons on, who were already bustling about in the kitchen, made sure everyone had a spot to sit, and we’d round up the kids to sit at their own table.
We all sat and bowed our heads to say grace, giving thanks for the meal and the hands that prepared it, and asking blessings upon those at the table as well as those who couldn’t be there. I savored that moment of appreciation, thinking about how fortunate I was to be in that family, at that table, with the people I love, on that busy, but gratifying, day.
And although the meal was always impressive, and we all left the table stuffed and nap-ready, it wasn’t about the food.
It was never about the food.
Over the years, the family got bigger as my sisters married and had children, and eventually, I did the same. As the family got bigger, the Thanksgiving table got smaller, as my older sisters and I started our own Thanksgiving traditions or visited with in-laws. But even after I married and had children, my siblings and I still enjoyed celebrating at my mother’s table sometimes. Mother would do less of the cooking as we encouraged her to sit and rest. We’d make sure Dad had his cold beer so he could enjoy his football game. It was nice to feel like a kid again, but at the same time, to be a grownup.
Losing my parents and sister in 1999 dealt such a blow to my life; aside from the obvious, it also turned my whole notion of tradition on its head. I was unable to muster up any desire to celebrate the holidays; for several years, I was lost when it came to Thanksgiving. We were invited to join other family members for their festivities, but nothing really felt like it fit. Not to me. And it wasn’t a reflection of their generous and loving hospitality; it was just how torn I felt from the very fabric of my life. The old tradition was gone – obliterated – and I had nothing with which to replace it.
Eventually, we accepted the invitation of our very dear friends. Their Thanksgiving, while not what I was used to, was a warm and welcome gathering, with a menu that’s a little different each year. I worked my way through the grief by literally working my way through it – I would arrive early in the day, don an apron, and set to prepping vegetables or making pie or whatever task I was given. Many times I found myself in tears over the sink, but those tears were the catharsis I needed.
Thanksgiving with our close friends is the convention we’ve embraced for over a decade now, and although sometimes I yearn for the turkey dinners of the past, I am overwhelmingly grateful for what we have now. We are not guests; we are family, and this is our custom. To honor my parents, I make my mother’s sausage stuffing. Mr. Stuck and I share in the preparation of delightful and creative dishes and serve them proudly. The house is abuzz in activity and laughter and music, with family members, friends, and guests arriving throughout the day. Every year, there seems to be at least one new face to welcome to the table. This is our new old tradition.
And as we sit down to the table heavy with goodies, we carry on the practice of my friend’s late grandfather and take turns sharing what each of us is thankful for. There are many mentions of friends and family, those who have gone before us, and the bounty of the day’s meal. When my turn comes, I am nearly always choked up with emotion and gratitude. I am thankful for so much: the traditions of the past; the generosity of our friends, the hosts; the faces of the people crowded around the large table; the abundance of the meal itself; and the healing that it has meant to me.
But more than anything, I am grateful for what it all represents – the loving ritual; the anchor; that feeling of belonging and the carrying on of a tradition over generations. These are memories that we build together and that our children will look back on and build from.
It’s not about the food.
It was never about the food.
photo credit Hey Paul Studios