“And so, here we are. The calendar has come ‘round again to that time we set aside to give thanks for all that our lives are, and thanks for all the people who share in it. Let’s eat.”
Some around the table would mumble an Amen while the Catholic branch of the family hurried through crossing themselves, not entirely sure if Uncle Lee’s usual brief statement of something that sounded like gratitude actually counted as grace. The unrepentant grabbed the steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans and yams and start eating. Aunt Donna would rush back into the kitchen, furiously whisking away at the gravy and then suddenly dart over to the oven to get the Pillsbury crescent rolls out before they burned. My cousin Jeff would jump up from the table to help his dad bring in the giant turkey that had been “resting” on the kitchen counter. If there was one thing I absolutely loved, it was Uncle Lee’s barbequed turkey. It wasn’t actually barbequed, but basted with a smoky, sweet sauce that made me salivate every time.
Except for the occasional request to pass a bowl of whatever around for a second helping–usually potatoes, gravy or stuffing–nobody was talking. Everyone was too busy eating. Eventually, though, Uncle Lee would venture into conversation with someone, and as we finished our plates, the rest of us would join in. The conversation varied from year to year, depending on whatever was the most urgent and hot topic of the day. If there was no particularly hot topic, the conversation turned to personal matters, which was boring because nobody liked talking about personal matters at big family dinners.
At some point Aunt Donna and my mother would start clearing the table, which was everyone else’s cue to either help clean up or go catch whatever football game was still on. Dessert came out about a half-hour afterward, typically my grandmother’s super-sweet maple pecan crunchies served with a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream, which we were allowed to eat wherever we were in the house, as long as we promised to eat sitting down, and with a napkin in case we spilled. And no feeding the dogs.
Most years my family would stay for the entire evening, long after our other cousins’ families had left; the adults talking and laughing either in the living room or back in the dining room over a game of cards, and the kids either in front of TV or playing Ping-Pong in the garage. But there were some years we would leave shortly after finishing dessert. It all depended on whether Mom and Uncle Lee were getting along that year or not.
If my mother and her brother were in one of their snits, spending the holidays together was simply an exercise of family duty. No one ever made a fuss about it, but my folks would drag their feet getting out of the house, and then once there, they’d rush us through dinner and start making their good-byes the second we finished dessert (which they’d rush us through as well). I remember one Christmas we were walking out the door barely an hour after arriving. If it was a year my mom and Uncle Lee were OK, the conversation in the car on the way home was bright and happy and filled with compliments about how good the dinner was, how well everyone looked, and how funny that joke was that someone told. The bad years we were silent, with mom occasionally bitching about how boring it is to eat the same damn dinner each Thanksgiving and what a grumpy old ass Uncle Lee was. We knew there was some sort of history; some sort of reason behind these occasional fall-outs. Our cousins and other aunt and uncle had hinted off and on about it for years. I once asked my Dad about it, but all he said was, “Your uncle and mother get on each other’s nerves sometimes, I guess.”
Mom and Lee went to their graves with no one learning what any of it was ever about. The more I thought about it, the more I figured Dad was probably right. It was probably the result of an ancient grievance, or just the habit of sibling rivalry. But, whatever the reason, I sure hated the way it ruined holiday dinners.
That little story is an amalgamation of various family tidbits, none of which actually came together as I wrote it, but if they had, it would have made for a “typical” Thanksgiving family gathering.
As the holidays approach, I get a sort of mixed-bag of emotions. On one hand, I look forward to a lot of it and enjoy the festivities, but at the same time I dread that it all can be such a drag. I think it’s the perfunctory nature of having to get together during the holidays… I was going to follow with, “not the actual coming together,” but then realize that for some folks, getting together with family is not something they ever look forward to. Fortunately, I don’t have that problem and genuinely feel sorry for those that do.
Back to the holidays being perfunctory: Having a designated date as “the time” one is to get together with family is annoying. It’s similar to the argument used against Valentine’s Day: It’s better, and in fact more romantic, to be demonstrative with love and affection any day of the year, rather than just once a year (to say nothing of advisable, if you expect to maintain an intimate relationship). So, why doesn’t the same hold true for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Why wait for that one time of year rather than choose any ol’ time of year?
I love my family. We get together a lot and I have as much of a fun and meaningful time with them on a casual night on the couch with takeout pizza and TV as I do sitting at an elegantly appointed dining room table for a special occasion multi-course meal and a long night of conversation and games. But God forbid I suggest we celebrate Thanksgiving by not celebrating Thanksgiving. I can’t imagine telling my family I will not be setting the day aside to join them; that me and mine will be keeping our own holiday this year, and that I’ll catch up with them another time. Or, worse yet, suggest we go out, like, to a place known for its excellent fish.
Some traditions are hard and fast, and no matter the fact that my folks—who wrote the rule book on how family traditions will be upheld—are both gone now, the scepter and orb (and rule book) have been passed to the next in line, and they are determined to uphold traditions as written. Thanksgiving will be as it has been for the past decade or so now: at my eldest sister’s house with her family. As will Christmas.
Because I am very grateful that everyone in my family has always been able to drop whatever issue they are having with each other at the door before coming in for a family dinner, I have chosen not to rock the boat. I will dutifully go to my sister’s tomorrow with my usual appetizer and dessert and be happy for the opportunity to be with family. I just casually mention my little secret to all of you here on my blog, because, obviously, that’s part of the fun of having a blog 😉
“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” –GK Chesterton