"So in the spirit of gratitude and creating abundance, I’m calling on YOU ... to share what Thanksgiving means to you. The person who tugs at my heart strings the most will get a free essay writing class (Premium version) when the new session starts up on January 11."
- Amy Paturel*
I met the above challenge with my story below:
I never thought much about what Thanksgiving meant to me until recently, which should be a blasphemous confession coming from someone who has taught American History for years. I’ll eat our modern take on the original dishes eaten by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe to celebrate the bountiful harvest, but there aren’t presents, like on Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s getting colder rather than warmer, unlike on Easter and Passover. There are no fireworks, like on Independence Day. And I don’t get to dress up and eat massive amounts of candy, like on Halloween. So, Thanksgiving just wasn’t ranked high on my holiday favorites list. Worst of all - there’s always a dish of yams, which are vile, even if you dress them up with brown sugar and/or marshmallows. Besides, everything is decorated in oranges and browns, which are not flattering colors for my complexion.
Over the years, Thanksgiving has grown on me. Twenty years ago, I was a Catholic girl who began dating a Jewish boy from the same high school. While there were other issues with us being of two different faiths, choosing which side of the family to visit for the holidays was not one of them. All Christian holidays were celebrated with my side of the family. I’m sure those early years were overwhelming for my then boyfriend because, in comparison with his family, my family is huge. I had the pretty sedate Irish side of my father’s and the boisterous Italian side of my mother’s. If there were any conflicts about where to celebrate, it would be between my divorced parents’ separate family events. In those instances, we’d split our time between two houses, since virtually everyone lived within a forty-five minute drive from one another on Long Island. The Jewish holidays were reserved for my husband’s side, which were usually at my boyfriend’s parents’ house. Then came Thanksgiving.
Since my family seemed to have more of everything: people, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and so forth, Thanksgiving at my boyfriend’s parents’ home became a tradition. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but in the last fifteen years, several events occurred that made the location and the holiday take on a greater significance.
First, my father’s side of the family began dropping off like flies. His brother already lived in upstate NY, along with his estranged wife and three kids, so we rarely saw them. Then my paternal grandmother died three months before my wedding with the Jewish boyfriend. After that, my alcoholic aunt (my father’s younger sister) in Queens stopped making the effort to see us, except for two subsequent funerals before she eventually had her own. Several years later, my father’s older sister died, just two months before my sister’s wedding. As my father’s family demised, my mother-in-law began encouraging me to invite my father and sister for Thanksgiving.
Second, my mother’s side began to stop making the effort for all holidays, but Christmas. As a child, my parents, along with my mother’s siblings, took turns holding holidays. Over time, nearly all my aunts and uncles wound up divorcing, which caused a couple of remarriages, and a move. Several years later, there was a big family feud over where my maternal grandmother should live when she was declining, which strained family relations for years. One aunt and uncle couple, along with my cousin began taking turns hosting Christmas. But nobody bothered beyond immediate family for Easter anymore, and Thanksgiving became a dessert-only function for all but a handful of “insiders” at another Aunt and Uncle’s house in Bay Shore. I’ve never been one of the insiders. My Aunt’s reason for picking favorites was that her house was small. Then she moved, and even the Thanksgiving desserts were deserted. None of my cousins took the holiday reigns – besides me, no one else has yet had children and many (like us) have moved too far from Long Island to host. As a result, people do not hold extended family gatherings for anything but Christmas. Personally, Christmas was fun, but never had deep meaning for me, and once I converted to Judaism, I only celebrate at my Aunt and Uncle’s home in Port Washington.
My sister, who came with her husband for Thanksgiving every year anyway, eventually got divorced. She still comes, which is nice for my children and me. My father moved to Maine, but until he got a girlfriend a few years ago, he attended every year – even sleeping over. I don’t know if he’ll ever celebrate with us again now he’s pulled in his own direction, but he and his girlfriend have an open invitation from my mother-in-law.
The fact that Thanksgiving has become more important to me is a direct result of my mother-in-law. Most people I meet do not get along with their mother-in-laws, but that isn’t the case with me – she’s more like a mother. For twenty-years, she has extended an invitation to my mother, father, and sister, and other relatives and friends she thought might need a place to go. Just like her, her home is a warm and inviting place. Since I was nineteen, I’ve always felt welcome in her house, enhanced by the fact that my relatives were welcome as an extension of me. When my husband and I made the difficult decision to move all the way to Massachusetts eight years ago, she immediately got my husband and me a bed, bedding, and a bureau. She also bought beds for our children, along with a closet-full of toys, to make it feel like a second home. We’re always invited to visit as often as we want, and to stay as long we’d like.
It’s a drag to drive in for Thanksgiving. It seems that the rest of the Boston area leaves with us, so a normally four-and-a-half hour ride can run as long as seven hours, and the ride back, while not nearly as long, is not short enough. It’s a whirlwind three days of cooking, feasting, cleaning, and visiting relatives. But with all of the inconveniences, I look forward to it more with each year. When so much of life feels like chaos, the holiday feels like an anchor. The Thanksgiving tradition has become just that.
Our “traditional” Thanksgiving is atypical. First of all, there’s never a designated time to begin, so people show up when they feel like it. Sometimes this means that the turkey is done hours before dinner. Since I’m complimented for my soups, I usually cook one for a first course, which is also probably not normal. We’re the only family I know that does Thanksgiving dinner buffet style, with tables set up in the dining room, and people eating casually at chairs in the kitchen, on couches and on the floor at the coffee table in the living room. Because of the Jewish influence, there’s usually (at least) one dish per person, so leftovers are enough to feed many people for many days to follow. The atmosphere is light and festive, while we all weigh ourselves down with food. Everyone leaves satisfied.
When I look back twenty-years-ago, my family seemed so large, while my husband’s seemed too small. So much has changed in twenty-years. My husband’s hair is gray, I’m Jewish, we have an eleven-year-old boy, and a seven-year-old girl. We’ve moved six times in our fifteen-years of marriage. Our one constant is my in-laws’ home. While my extended families have weakened for a variety of reasons, my nuclear family has one place we can always stay. Each year for Thanksgiving, there’s a slightly different group of people at my in-law’s home, but the same core are always present: my mother and father-in-law, my sister-in-law, her husband, and two children, my husband, our two kids, and me. My mother always stops by for a while and my sister always spends the day. Everyone else is just gravy.