This will be the first Thanksgiving I will not sit crammed between a cousin, nephew, or brother whose elbows dig into my ribs each time they take a bite. There won’t be thirty or forty relatives packed onto folding chairs at rented round tables that fill up my father’s living room. I won’t have to wait in a long line to mound my plate with turkey and mashed potatoes that have gotten cold.
There probably won’t be grace offered by the youngest member of the family or the familiar toasts about what a great country we live in and what a strong family we have. I doubt anyone will stand up to read prepared remarks or an editorial from the New York Times on the meaning of the holiday. One thing certainly won’t happen. My father will not stand up and say, as he has for at least the past four years, “This is my last Thanksgiving. Next year someone else will have to do it.”
Thanksgiving was Dad’s favorite day of the year, and the party was always at his house. It was a command performance. Everyone came, no excuses. Grandchildren and later great-grandchildren showed up if they possibly could, and if not they called or wrote something corny that was read aloud at the table while we dabbed our eyes with our napkins. We are a sentimental bunch.
Starting in early November there’s always been a lot of preparation and discussion. Who’s coming? How many pies should we make? Should there be three each of pecan, apple, and pumpkin? How many people eat sweet potatoes besides Uncle Sonny?
Without the force of Dad’s magnetism, we are shards flying, disoriented and random. My uncle turned to me a few weeks ago looking bewildered and announced as if it were news, “This is our first Thanksgiving without your father.” None of us has figured out quite what to do. The best we can muster is small pods of eight or ten. No one is ready yet to take on the mantle, yet no one is glad of the break.
My family will still make the four-ferry drive from here on the Vineyard to the end of Long Island. Dad’s house has not sold yet, so we can still stay there. Many family members, like homing pigeons, are returning. We have the urge to gather, we just haven’t figured out how to do it yet without Dad there at the center.
This will be an easy year in terms of preparation. There is no need to quadruple my special cranberry relish recipe. My sister and I can sleep in instead of setting our alarm for six am Thanksgiving morning so we have enough time to make the sausage stuffing, fill the three turkeys and get them started. I won’t need to walk over to my brother’s house next door in my pajamas lugging that third turkey for him to cook in his oven. There won’t be all those dishes to wash and put away.
Yet today it felt odd, almost antiseptic, to call and place an order at a market for a single turkey and sides already cooked, for a total of seven. Instead of nine pies I ordered two, leaving out apple altogether. The effort seemed wrong, the number paltry.
It’s not just Dad I miss, but his whole generation, the men and women I knew growing up. The grownups born during the Roaring Twenties, who were teens during the Depression, yet stayed staunchly optimistic in the face of World War II. They were the members of Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.”
When Dad wrote my mother in 1944, from behind enemy lines in Belgium, he declared their motto would always be “Forward unafraid” and it was, especially for him. Dad charged through life with a certainty and an authority that my generation has never felt. We were born after the atomic bomb fell and came of age during the Vietnam War. Taught to question authority, we doubt most everything.
Even taking charge of a Thanksgiving gathering is difficult for us. Next year maybe someone in the family will step up, and we will gather as a big group again, but maybe not. What is certain is that this year and for many to come, wherever members of our clan gather, I know someone will stand and tap a knife on a wine glass to quiet the group. Glasses will be filled, then raised to Dad and his indomitable, rapidly departing generation.
Laura Wainright, a freelance writer, lives in West Tisbury.