12. Thanksgiving: part 1

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.

8 thoughts on “12. Thanksgiving: part 1

  1. Thanks Larry!! My childhood memories of Thanksgiving were around the dining room table. Usually around 8 or 10 people so my sister and I both had a seat. My grandmother lived with us and she was a fabulous cook. My mom helped but my grandmother was the driver. I recall one Thanksgiving when my grandmother’s brother and his wife were included the one and only time. He was very successful and very pompous and we discovered, when he offered to say grace, extremely long winded. As you know, synchronizing all the sides warm and to the table is not an easy task. That was accomplished before this blowhard went on and on and on. My grandmother, my parents and especially my sister and I weren’t too happy about this pious blather. Meanwhile, the food is getting cold.

    My mother was in high school during the depths of the depression and my my grandmother was a struggling single mother. My mom quit high school after her sophomore year to go to work to help her mom. She was an only child. In fact, shewould, ironically, work at this uncle’s and aunt’s dinner parties for a pittance. They would give her a plate of leftovers and she would leave, having to take the bus to Elmhurst from the uncle’s house in River Forest. They wouldn’t even drive my, then 16 year old mom home, knowing full well that neither my mom or grandmother had a car. So this is the back story of this faithful servant of the Lord. Needless to say he was replaced and grace was forever, short and sweet, and may I say, sincere.

  2. This is a lovely memoir, Larry. And as it suggests, it’s the people with whom we gather which ignite the fond memories and holiday gratitude. It has little to do with the site of the celebration, so I’m sure you’ll do fine in the condo. Have a very, very Happy Thanksgiving, my friend.
    Tom M.
    P.S. from the Association: no frying the turkey on your balcony.

  3. Larry
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and all. Another great memory. I hope you have a great day and another fine memory.
    As my memory fades I have limited thoughts, I do remember with 7 kids in my family and a big number of cousins the day was always bedlam, but crazy fun.
    I am sure the condo will not effect the memories or the thanks.
    Bill

  4. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday because of the memories my parents created with the family plus orphans thirty years in a row
    . If there were ever a genie in a bottle granting wishes I would take a Thanksgiving past which included Bloody Mary’s, flying flour for the pumpkin pies, cyclonic elder relatives creating timeless dishes with sounds of laughter in the background. The day wasn’t complete until the smoke alarm went off telling us the dressing was done and after dinner, Christmas carols were sung around the piano. There is no way to recreate those memories today but I would trade just about anything for one more Thanksgiving like that.

  5. Hey Larry, As I remember, it was Christmas dinner that was special back when we were growing up. Mom would bring out her two red candles, but would never actually light them. In fact she never removed the cellophane wrapping! 🙂

  6. Hi Larry,

    Thank you for the warm re-counting of your Thanksgiving history and its evolution into the holiday that you grown to enjoy so much. I have always had fond memories of Thanksgiving. I am sure that Thanksgiving in the condo will be another wonderful page
    in your 72 year history.

    Scott

  7. Larry,

    Beautifully written.
    One of my fondest thanksgiving memories was as an eleven or twelve year old getting into the Mogen David with my sister and cousins while our parents were distracted. The kids table was rockin…
    Turning my recent single era I once had 12 relatives over for thanksgiving in my townhouse which was much smaller than your condo. It all went pretty well, at least nobody died. My cleaning lady charged me double her normal rate, which was a bargain
    Have a great day tomorrow,

    -Bill

  8. Hi Lar! My Thanksgiving memories are much the same! All seated around the table – unless there were a LOT of us and the kids had a separate table in the kitchen. And the good smells. All that changed when I joined the Navy. I think that the first year I was invited to someone’s home who was taking in strays. And it was in Hawaii so it didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving. The next year I was in London and it was so odd to have the day off when the city was still bustling with the usual business of a Thursday! How wonderful that you made a real effort to create memories for Erin.

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