Thanksgiving, always a happy time, has evolved in our family. When I was 10, Mom and Dad and my four sisters and two brothers, ranging in age from 1 to about 13, were all crowded into a small split level house with three bedrooms and one and a half baths. It was tight, but we made it work.
There was a standard menu for Thanksgiving Day — candied yams, onions in cream sauce, mashed potatoes so buttery they were yellow, green beans, and of course a massive, crispy-on-the outside turkey, plump with fragrant bread and raisin stuffing. The cranberry sauce was a gelatinous cylinder with ridges corresponding to the can from which it came.
Sometimes Uncle Howie from up the block would stop by before dinner, while his wife Dolores was busy in the kitchen at home. Howie owned a transmission repair shop and his fingers were permanently stained with grease. Dad would pour him a big double Scotch, and Howie would sit and sip it at the head of our dining room table.
“She threw me out again, Jimmy,” Howie laughed as he lit another one of the long menthol cigarettes he loved. “Can you believe it — I’m useless in the kitchen!”
That was the Thanksgiving drill pretty much through my graduation from high school: all of us at home, eating the same great Mom-made meal year after year. There was something comforting in the routine; the certainty of it all. It seemed like it would never change.
When I was in college, I had a steady girlfriend and so did my brother, so one or both of us had to stop by their parents’ house either before or after dinner. Sometimes I’d miss Howie’s visit, or skip dinner entirely. After dinner, if we could get away with it, Jim and I still poked our fingers into the carcass in the kitchen to find blobs of undiscovered stuffing, but the holiday routine was a little less predictable.
After college, when a few of us had gotten married and started having kids, Thanksgiving entered its next phase. Mom still made most of the food, but it was getting crowded in that little house, and her stove couldn’t handle all the side dishes. So we all started bringing sides, and desserts, and wine to help her out.
And, most importantly to Mom and Dad, we brought grandkids. To Mom’s and Dad’s delight, the cousins rolled around the living room, tickling and laughing (and crying and fighting too), while my brothers and sisters and I hung around all day eating and drinking together. This became our new immutable Thanksgiving routine.
But over time people started moving away, and some of the cousins got girlfriends or boyfriends whose parents had to be visited, and the roster of guests got spotty again. A number of us started having the holiday dinner at our own houses, to start our own family Thanksgiving tradition. So some years we were all together; others not. Howie no longer came by because he’d dropped dead of a stroke one Thanksgiving morning, right in his wife’s kitchen.
Then a few years later Dad got sick and died, and the holiday changed again. The first Thanksgiving after he’d passed, we all came together at the house, and it felt like a memorial dinner — more somber than festive. We kept that tradition up for a few years, and things got happy again. All of us brought the side dishes and wine and all the kids we could muster, helping Mom put together a dinner that looked a lot like the dinners we’d had before.
But a chunk of life had drained out of Mom, who was visibly older and less capable than when Dad was alive. And her dementia was setting in too, so cooking Thanksgiving dinner soon became impossible for her.
So we entered the itinerant phase of our family Thanksgiving dinner: one year we would host at our house for Mom and anyone else who cared to come; another year it was at the home of one of my other siblings. Most years we weren’t all together; we were just too scattered. The unchanging routine in Cresskill had given way to new unchanging routines we’d all established in our own homes.
Now a number of my brothers and sisters and I are becoming grandparents. Pretty soon we’ll be the doting older folks clapping in the background as the kids play, letting the younger generation do the heavy lifting of cooking and cleaning up the feast.
The unchanging routine is changing again.