We are on the cusp of setting a totally new tradition for our family's Thanksgiving. It's time. We are no longer young parents. Our kids are middle-aged adults; they have children who are young adults. Extended family members are growing frail and need special attention.
I, who usually embrace change, don't like the changes that are coming our way. Yet, when I look back and see how our family's Thanksgiving holiday traditions have morphed, I take comfort in life's cyclical pattern. Like other families, ours has no stasis; the balanced becomes unbalanced.
We move through our Thanksgiving customs as we move through life--in stages. My family and I have moved through seven of them. Other family's particulars are inevitably different from mine, but for all of us, there are make-overs and take-overs over the years.
Stage 1: Loosey Goosey: Our children are very young. We have moved to a city 4-hours away from where we grew up and where our parents live. We keep the holiday simple and small--as small as the little townhouse we are renting. Two pre-school children less than two years apart in age focus our minds on day-to-day needs rather than elaborate holiday meals.
Stage 2: Friends and Family: When we move to a bigger house and our children are in the prime of their primary school years, we have Thanksgiving dinners with another family. We share the cooking and meal planning, scanning our memory banks to remember which surprising new dish from the previous year our families liked and which should never ever be repeated. Thanksgiving dinner is always at our house: They have dogs; we have allergies.
Stage 3: New Attachments: Our kids leave for college, start independent lives and put down roots in other cities. They form romantic attachments, some of whom appear at Thanksgiving dinner. Attachments became spouses and now Thanksgiving is more than a meal. It is a weekend during which the refrigerator has to be stocked not just for a turkey dinner but for three meals a day and additional guests. The house expands to accommodate bigger beds and pillows as well as more seats at the dining room table.
Stage 4: New Beginnings: Grandchildren transform our Thanksgiving get-togethers into a wild weekend at our house. Blow-up beds and portable cribs accommodate sleeping babies and toddlers. Those in charge of the kitchen have to keep straight our grandchildren's sipping and eating patterns and what their parents permit them to have and what is verbotten--for one family but not necessarily the other. There are multiple trips to airports to pick up and drop off a son and his family and a daughter and hers. By Sunday, we are as flat on our backs as the now-deflated blow-up beds.
Stage 5: Passing the Baton: Our children's families grow bigger. It makes more sense for the two of us--the parents/grandparents--to travel to them than to have eight children/grandchildren moving through airports and highways to arrive at our house for Thanksgiving. Our son and daughter-in-law who have the largest family and house take on the mantel of hosting Thanksgiving. Our routine now is: We arrive two days in advance to help--and to avoid the height of airport congestion. We assist in the kitchen, run errands and set tables but we are no longer in charge.
Stage 6: Zoom. The pandemic is a game changer. No one is going anywhere. No hugs. No sneaks into the kitchen to pre-taste a side dish. No idle chit-chat. We make do with Zoom. Our son emcees the family get-together with photos from the past and a fun quiz about what's happening in those photos, i.e. why have the parents (that's us) let their 10-year-old daughter wear a sweater advertising Joe Camel? Fun stuff. But after an hour, we click off and the goodwill of being together online dissipates. Is Zoom or a hybrid mode going to be the future for family get-togethers?
Stage 7: Frailties: We are negotiating Thanksgiving in a post-pandemic world. It is also a world in which time has been marching on. Grandchildren are taking a gap year abroad. Elderly relatives who live alone in other cities are growing increasingly frail and in need of attention, especially during the holidays. We, the parents/grandparents, are not as spry as we once were. We will make the trip north this year but our three families will split up in order to accommodate the elderly cousin who is alone. It's not just the cousin who's feeling his age. Our children have already raised the question of whether they should come to us. We could, they suggest, rely on store-prepared turkeys and sides instead of cooking a meal for ten or more.
We are on the cusp of something completely different--and not completely welcome.
painting: Norman Rockwell