When we are children, we believe that our families will always be the same. Time moves slowly, and we don’t understand that a future awaits in which family members will be born, or die, or marry into other families, or stray, or become estranged. And perhaps no holiday better illustrates a family’s ebb and flow, its metamorphosis and stasis, than Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a magnet that draws people back into their families, even as polar opposites attract. Gratitude and home go together.
I can organize my life of Thanksgivings in five acts. In Act I, I am a child. My father is in charge of the Thanksgiving turkey. He gets up early and begins the happy ritual of concocting the dressing, stuffing the mixture into the bird, buttering the bird, and taking the top shelf out of the oven so the massive-breasted turkey will fit. Then it cooks all day. My father bastes it and checks its temperature, but his main task is done until it is time to carve the turkey. We salivate as the house fills with the browning smell of poultry.
My mother fusses with the centerpiece and the many side dishes. She assigns us kids chores to do, like filling the fancy salt and pepper shakers and folding the holiday napkins that are covered with fall leaves and setting the table so that the knives face the right way. We are all part of the family production. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade marches across the television in the background, followed by hours of football games. Relatives arrive with more food. The fridge is stuffed. The oven has a waiting list, and the top rack goes back in when the turkey comes out. Even if we take only a tiny portion of each dish, we run out of room on our plates. There are desserts, both familiar and exotic. Stomachs are stretched, buttons are unbuttoned, and the adults get louder as the alcohol flows. We kids drowse and then fall asleep on piles of visitors’ winter coats, dreaming of Christmas. Thanksgiving seems like it will never change.
In Act II, I am in college, and because my school in another state, I miss my first Thanksgiving at home. Another year, I bring home a boyfriend, but I can tell that no one likes him. I start to wonder why I like him. Thanksgiving seems a quaint tradition, but I humor my parents by showing up whenever I can. I am an adult work-in-progress.
In Act III, I am the young mom. I am the busiest person in the world. My husband and I have had four daughters in nine years, so when our family arrives at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, we cause the crowding and levity and noise level to increase exponentially. My children wear the Pilgrim hats and Native American feathered headdresses that they made at school. I give them the small chores to do, while the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade still marches through the background. My parents are now my children’s grandparents. I notice that my parents rely on their kids to do more of the prepping and cooking for Thanksgiving. They are aging. We have all moved up a notch on the generational chart.
In Act IV, I am the older mom. My children are now the adults, bringing home boyfriends and girlfriends, and then spouses. They now indulge us in our quaint traditions. The faces around the table change, as my father has died, as some family members have moved far away, as others have divorced themselves from anyone beyond their own nuclear families. The table itself changes, as my mother lives in an assisted living facility. The Thanksgiving table is our table now. Our house is now the older folks’ house.
In Act V, which is yet to come, I’m elderly. Maybe I’m the one who needs the assisted living. Gratitude is a daily affair, a morning prayer couched in the awareness that each Thanksgiving may be my last. The adult faces from Act I are long gone, ghosts and fading memories, and the children of those days are senior citizens. The world has progressed in its never-ending revolutions, just as the faces around the Thanksgiving table have changed. The strands of my DNA have mingled and morphed into the generations of the future. And this is good. This is exactly as it should be. Some traditions have endured; some have slipped away into nostalgia. But Thanksgiving is ever a day to pause and reflect, and to overflow with gratitude for the many blessings from the hand of a loving God. Some things never change.