This is my 72nd Thanksgiving. The last 40 have been pretty good. The first 31… ehhh, not so much. We’ll see how this one – our first downsized Thanksgiving – turns out.
As a kid, Thanksgiving was just a loud, over-stuffed aunt-and-uncle meal that meant Christmas was close. My best Thanksgiving memories are of the times we went downtown after dinner to see the Christmas windows. That’s when the magic began.
Thanksgiving itself wasn’t that important, but I remember the event well. It was orchestrated chaos, usually at my cousin’s house, with lots of grown-ups, noise and food. After much preparation, we sat down to dinner at several card tables with paper plates and plastic knives, forks and cups. It was the basic Thanksgiving menu.
On family TV shows, Thanksgiving looked nothing like my family’s. Consciously or unconsciously, I set a goal to have Thanksgiving dinners that looked more like Ward and June Cleaver’s: nice house, dining room, everyone around one table, set with real plates, glasses and silverware.
When I got married at 21, we quickly accomplished that goal. My wife and I had real Thanksgiving dinner around a dining room table with real china and crystal. We had become adults. Six years later, we were divorced.
The most significant developments in the evolution of my Thanksgiving unfolded over the 12 years that followed that divorce. I was a newly single guy, a high school English teacher wandering in the wilderness, moving from one barren apartment to the next. At first during that time, Thanksgiving and Christmas weren’t great times for me. They were family holidays, and I didn’t have much resembling a family.
The constants in my life were my daughter, Erin, who was 2 when we divorced; my original family (father in Boston, brother in New Hampshire, and mom still in St. Louis); and a group of close friends, most of whom I’d bummed around with in high school. Friends would invite me to holiday dinner, but I usually declined because I didn’t want to intrude on their family.
At some point, I decided to try Thanksgiving dinner in my own apartment with my daughter, my mother, and any friends who didn’t have plans. That was the turning point.
My high school friends all had families in St. Louis, so I invited people I worked with, people from out of town who couldn’t get home for the weekend. One was from DC, one from Buffalo, his wife from Minnesota, and a guy from Texas. Mom was usually there, too. What all of us (except Erin) had in common was that we had nowhere else to be that day.
From that first year on, the one person who was always there was also the main reason I started hosting Thanksgiving: my daughter. (My ex and I were very cooperative when it came to sharing her on holidays.) I wanted her to have some memories – even if they were boring ones – of family traditions at her dad’s.
Erin and I worked hard to create our Thanksgivings. Everyone brought a dish, and I cooked the turkey. We bumped into each other in my small kitchen, getting all the dishes on the table at the same time. I learned that the Ward Cleaver scene of carving the perfectly browned turkey at the table was fake. Never happens. I cut the turkey in the kitchen, and brought out a big plate of sliced white and dark meat.
I had a real dining room. All of our guests were seated around one table, and all the traditional dishes with their accompanying aromas were on that table. It was picture perfect, as far as I was concerned. It was almost a family.
Most important, my daughter loved this tradition, even though she was the only kid. When she was in high school, she wrote about Thanksgivings at her dad’s apartment. What she liked most was that sitting around the table were Thanksgiving orphans, friends who didn’t have family locally.
What used to be boring when I was a kid had evolved into an important family tradition with my kid.
Thanksgiving has continued to evolve during the three decades since I met my life partner. The look of Thanksgiving has changed – for the better – but the core focus remains intact: getting family and friends around one table, and sharing the same kinds of food our parents and ancestors have always shared every fourth Thursday in November.
This old guy has much more to share about Thanksgiving. But right now, we’ve got work to do: finalize the menu, make four grocery lists (Costco, Whole Foods, Jewel, Caputo’s), make the stuff that can be made in advance, and figure out how to translate Thanksgiving into a condo event.
We’re not even sure Thanksgiving can happen in a condo. It may be against the rules.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.