Photo courtesy of Laura Wainwright

Enough for forty

By Laura Wainwright - November 21, 2007

The first phone call comes around Columbus Day. "Are you making the cranberry sauce?" It's Dad. We're warming up to Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday. "Yes, Dad, of course, I'll make the sauce." I've been bringing it for 25 years. "Good. We need enough for at least 40." We always do.

We do this dance annually. It begins slowly but by mid-November the flurry of conversations and e-mails is fast and furious. This is the one time each year my family gathers and we really look forward to being together. We are a big group. I have four siblings. We have produced ten children, and now they have had eight great-grand children with more on the way. When a family member gets married, part of the deal is the spouse joins our Thanksgiving. Ask my husband, who's been coming now for 30 years - not always gleefully, but he keeps on coming back.

The form of Thanksgiving does not change. There is a big sit-down meal at Dad's house at the east end of Long Island. We are expected to arrive at twelve o'clock sharp, to dress nicely, comb our hair, wear shoes. The menu is the same year to year, but there are nuances to discuss and chores to do. Who's cooking Uncle Sonny's sweet potatoes? Will Belle make her biscuits? Who's going to pick up the extra chairs and tables? Who's doing the seating? Can I sit next to Mark this year? The meal is a structured around the food, of course, but real conversations break out and connections are made. Afterwards there will be bowling, walks, late night chats in the kitchen over the leftovers, but without the core of this ritual none of it would happen.

If the heart of our Thanksgiving is the food, its soul is the group photograph. "Get outside. Time for the picture," Dad will bellow just before lunch. Word quickly spreads. Babies are scooped up from naps, hair is brushed, cameras retrieved. Rain or shine, in freezing weather or mild we all troop outside and line up in the backyard with our backs to Georgica Pond.

Smile for the camera

There's a mixture of grumbling and laughter, but we know our job. We smile, cameras flash and then we hurry back inside to eat. In a few weeks this year's picture will be labeled with the date and added to the others in the kitchen hallway.

There are 28 Thanksgiving photos to date. Almost every year since 1978 is represented. Someone probably knows why we are missing a few years, but I don't. When family members stop by to see Dad they often end up in the kitchen pouring over these Thanksgiving photographs like amateur anthropologists. A superficial look shows only a blur of well-fed, overdressed WASPs vaguely similar year after year, but scratch the surface, as any of us can, and there is a treasure trove of family history.

The photographs are hung randomly; 1980 is right next to 2001. I move from picture to picture absorbing images and stories.

There's my nephew, Shep, as a toddler, the year he cut his hair with safety scissors. Now he's expecting his third child. Remember Belle when she had green hair? Look how Mia often holds a dog or is hugging a smaller relative. This year I know she'll be looking closely at the pictures from the 80s. Her father is in them. He died this summer and she misses him.

It's fun to pick someone and follow him or her through time. Take Dad. He's usually front and center, often flanked by his current dog. Numerous wives and girlfriends have come and gone. In recent years he is single, and now he carries a cane. I follow my two children and watch them grow from babyhood to college age.

My nephew Ben wrote to me, "The photos tell one story and a hundred stories at once in yearly stop motion. I see my connection to my cousins and the chronicle of our generation. I see myself as a boy, an angry teen, an adult with crazy hair surrounded by those I love most dearly and some I have lost. It's a tradition I hope will not end." Hairstyles and clothes change, but the connection we feel standing together endures.

Like Ben, I too notice the people who are absent. Lately it's my mother's face that leaps out of the photographs when I look. Although my parents were divorced, she often joined our Thanksgivings, until her death in 2000. She looks so vital and young. I'm catching up to her. I am almost as old as she was in the photograph from 1978. Before long, I'll overtake her.

The great grandchildren add a sparkle to the tradition. This year Lucy will be in the picture for the first time. Born premature, her first Thanksgiving was spent in the hospital. Last month when I visited Dad, I overheard Jack and Alex, two great grandchildren, talking together. They were looking at the photographs and boasting to one another about how much bigger they were going to be in this year's picture. "We were just babies then, but now we're three!"

Once the picture is taken with at least a dozen cameras, the youngest family member says grace and we tuck into our meal. There is turkey, of course, with all the trimmings and we always end with a choice of apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie for dessert. Toasting is traditional and starts with my uncle tapping on his wine glass to quiet us. We're a sentimental bunch and there are often tears.

Last year when Dad got up to give his toast we weren't really listening. His job is to talk about what a great family and country we have. He surprised us. "This is my last Thanksgiving. I'm too old. It's too expensive. Someone else will have to do it next year." No one believed him, but he has held his ground.

This year we'll still gather at his house for the picture. No one is ready to give that up. Then the meal will be at Nichols, a local restaurant. The menu will be the same but we won't be cooking or cleaning up. As I write this the phone rings. Dad.

"Are you making the cranberry sauce?"

"But Dad, I thought Nichols was doing the dinner."

"They are, but still bring the cranberry sauce."

"I will."

"We'll need enough for 40."

We always do.

Laura Wainwright is a contributing writer to The Times.