Throughout the first two decades of my youth, my grandmother always held Thanksgiving dinner at her house. Most of her sons had moved out of town or out of state; eventually so did most of her daughters, so we didn’t see extended family on my father’s side very often. I looked forward to Thanksgiving as much as Christmas, because it meant getting together with aunts and uncles and cousins that we saw only two or three times a year – or only once every few years. It was a very happy occasion.
In the early years (until I was about eight years old) there weren’t more than a handful of grandkids and maybe nine or ten adults (including spouses). The gatherings were often quite lively. We kids played in the partially-finished basement. There were board games, books, toys, and a ping pong table to keep us occupied. The adults would converse about this or that, eventually finding something they disagreed on to talk about. You could count on it ending in a shouting match. But no one’s feelings were hurt, at least not seriously. To me, it seemed to be part of the fun and entertainment of getting together with family.
The women helped Grandma in the kitchen, while the men setup the dining room. Grandma’s 1950-something suburban ranch was small: three tiny (by today’s standards) bedrooms, a bathroom, the kitchen, and a living room – but no actual dining room. After some rearranging of the furniture, the dining room table was assembled at one end of the living room. (After dinner, the leaves were removed and it folded into a sort of sideboard that sat against a wall, left unused most of the year – except it always had a bowl of mint candies on top). This table was for adults only. Anyone who was not a designated adult was assigned to sit at the kitchen table. The two tables weren’t more than ten feet apart, so our parents could keep an eye on us. The year I was promoted to the adult table was a very big deal (for me, anyway).
In later years, after additional young grandchildren were added to the family, and a few older grandchildren were admitted to the adult’s table, and a couple more marriages increased the adult population beyond the capacity of the dining room table, it was necessary to make other arrangements. By that time there were at least twelve or thirteen adults, and almost that many grandchildren. The only way to make it work was to commandeer the ping pong table in the basement. The ball net was replaced by several table cloths. Place settings of china and silverware filled every side leaving plently of room in the center of the table for the entrées and a couple of candles. (Which reminds me, one uncle-in-law from out of state taught us kids how to pass our finger through a candle flame without getting burned. He also explained the rules of football to me while the game was on TV one year.) The younger kids still had their own table off to the side. Thanksgiving dinner in the basement was every bit as enjoyable as it had been upstairs, complete with good company, humor, and wit.
Besides a big turkey, our family’s traditional side dishes included stuffing, mash potatoes and gravy, baked green bean salad, corn, homemade cranberry sauce (with bits of orange added as I recall – my favorite), squash, pickles, rolls, and at least several other items I can’t recall at the moment. For desert, a couple different flavors of pie and ice cream. Looking back, I am stunned and bewildered at the quantity I consumed. It doesn’t seem physically possible.
Grandma continued to host Thanksgiving dinner at her house after I joined the service. Years went by before I’d see another turkey dinner at Grandma’s table. By then, more family members had moved far enough away that coming for Thanksgiving every year just wasn’t feasible for them. The large Thanksgiving Day gatherings came to an end. Grandma stopped hosting dinner and started being a guest at the home of one or another son or daughter.
Thanksgiving back then wasn’t really about food or abundance or prosperity or “freedom from want” as the Norman Rockwell painting above suggests. We had all those things, for sure. What made Thanksgiving special was being with family. I’m thankful for all the wonderful memories I have of past family gatherings, even as there will be no large gathering for me today. I’m thankful that I’ll be spending the day with one person, my wife. We’ll share a quiet Thanksgiving celebration together. Lastly, I’m thankful for my online family at TNB. I hope you all have a wonderful day, whatever your plans. I’ll be with you in spirit.
Question(s) of the Night: What fond memories of past Thanksgivings do you have? How are you celebrating Thanksgiving today? What are you thankful for?