A traditional American Thanksgiving festival

How did we arrive at Thanksgiving so soon? Granted, it’s early this year, coming on the twenty-second of the month, but still. It’s hard to believe it’s even November, let alone Thanksgiving. Naturally, I’ve been thinking of Thanksgivings past and trying to figure out what traditions, if any, have carried over into the present, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a single image that represents Thanksgiving.

My maternal grandparents usually went out for Chinese food on Thanksgiving. They both taught college and didn’t want to spend their time off cooking a big meal and then cleaning up after. Besides, they probably had papers to grade over the long weekend.

My paternal grandparents ran grocery stores and restaurants, so fixing big meals was no big deal for them. Mammaw made six to eight pies every morning before breakfast to take down to the restaurant to sell. I’m guessing they prepared their own turkey dinner “with all the fixin’s” at the grocery store, along with the other Thanksgiving dinners they catered.

What is tradition, anyway? If it means doing the same thing in the same way year after year, we certainly don’t have that. Most of my images of big family gatherings and tables laden with food–turkey with dressing, pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes and gravy–seem to be from movies, such as Home for the Holidays, about families that were even more dysfunctional than ours. But a few years do stand out from the rest.

There was the year my first husband and I hopped in our 1967 VW bug with our large dog (part collie and part shepherd) and drove 600 miles to South Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with my dad. The thing we didn’t realize was that dad and his wife Wanda were both on “the night shift.” The day we arrived he stayed up all night cooking the turkey, and when Wanda got off work at 7:00 a.m., she made the side dishes and pies. We ate about 11:00 and Immediately after we finished eating, they both got up from the table and went straight to bed.We didn’t see them again until 10:00 that night. In the meantime, Wanda’s son came in and ate all of the leftover turkey. After several days, we were ready to get home, but the engine threw a rod about an hour down the road and we were forced to return to dad’s trailer until we could make arrangements to get home.

Or the year we got caught in a terrible snowstorm on our way to visit friends in Holland, Michigan. We were driving a rambler at the time, which had some sort of vacuum-operated windshield wipers that worked perfectly fine when you were sitting in a snowbank but not at all when you were driving at any speed down the highway. However, I do have fond memories of a beautiful walk in the snowy woods with our friends and their four children after we finally arrived.

After we moved to Missouri, we usually drove back home to Kentucky for Thanksgiving, but sometimes we stayed at home, depending I suppose on the weather and how busy things were at school. I remember my mom and stepfather Ralph and my aunt and uncle coming to our house one time. I also remember a time or two when my first son Matthew was little, and I was in graduate school and teaching four sections of composition, we decided to go out for turkey dinner. Matthew was impressed with the white table cloths, the crystal goblets for his coke, and the enormous sparkling Christmas tree. I was just thinking my grandparents had had the right idea.

My in-laws Bill and Ann were big on tradition, and we spent several Thanksgivings at their place. They were big noisy affairs, with all of us crowded into a relatively small house, the kids wearing Indian headdresses made out of construction paper, the football game running in the background, and everyone talking at once. And lots and lots of food. Apparently Granny felt obligated to make extra dishes to cater to everyone’s tastes. She made two kinds of salads, one with and one without nuts. She made stewed oysters for her husband, which no one else would eat. She made several kinds of pie. But we all just lied to Uncle Tommy and told him the squash casserole was made with sweet potatoes (because he claimed he didn’t like squash).

Thanksgivings at my mother’s house were quieter affairs, with only the number of people who could fit around their dining room table easily and have a good dinner conversation. We would usually have turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, dinner rolls made from my aunt Grace’s recipe, broccoli, corn pudding, cranberry salad, and pie. We might take a second helping of our favorites, but we tried not to stuff ourselves. The day after Thanksgiving, we would go visit friends (former students of mom’s and Ralph’s) who lived way out in the country in a cabin they had built themselves, and we would take long walks and tell stories.

Then there was the year my younger son Isaac and I met mom in Rome, Italy, for Thanksgiving. Isaac and I had been joking for months about going to Italy for a good cup of cappuccino, so one day I thought I would check online and see how much that would actually cost. Turns out Expedia had a special for $850 each, which included the flight and four nights in a hotel, so we just decided to do it. Mom was in England that year on sabbatical, so I asked her, only half joking, if she wanted to meet us in Rome. And she did! It was awesome.

Another year Isaac and I spent Thanksgiving visiting friends who were on sabbatical in Tampere, Finland. That was also awesome. Our friends wanted to share a traditional American Thanksgiving with some of the Finns they had met that year, but they were not quite prepared for the challenges of finding all the ingredients they would need (canned pumpkin proved to be an especial challenge) or for the discomfort of carrying a frozen turkey in a backpack on the long walk home in the dark.

One year we went to Rochester, New York, and my son Matthew and his college roommates cooked Thanksgiving dinner. They exhausted themselves with the effort, and the rest of the visit is somewhat of a blur, although I do remember we got to meet his friends, including one he called “the troll who lives under the stairs.”

Another year we invited some international students to our house for what they called a “traditional American Thanksgiving festival.” They were very interested in all the food and how it was prepared, but they were troubled by the arrangement of our tables. We had pushed a rectangular table up against our oval table, so we could all sit together, but that meant there was no clear “head of the table.” At one point during dinner, the Chinese student said, “Do you mind if I ask how all of you are related?” We all paused and looked at each other, and laughed because we certainly were not your traditional American family. Jim and I were not yet married; around our Thanksgiving table that day we had my mother, my niece, my younger son, Jim’s sister, her boyfriend, a young woman from China, and another woman from Korea. And as my son so astutely observed, “None of us have the same last name!” No wonder the students were confused.

This year we are all spread out again but thankful for memories and family and friends.

My dad and Wanda are still in South Carolina. They are only having six people at dinner, dad says. Wanda’s son (who ate the whole leftover turkey that time) can’t come this year because of some industrial accident at his plant.

My niece and her two children drove from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to spend the weekend with mom.

My brother is probably having a big loud get-together with his wife’s children and grandchildren in Florida.

My son Isaac and his wife Sandra are in Oregon; they are having one couple over for dinner.

My son Matthew is in Georgia “hanging out with peoples.”

We are making a pumpkin pie and taking it to Hank and Marie’s, who always host a potluck dinner and Irish music session at their house for anyone who needs a home to go to.

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