Essay : The changing faces of a fleeting feast
Although descriptions of the first Thanksgiving feast differ, I think we all agree that our quivering columns of cranberry jelly and green beans topped with canned fried onions bear little resemblance to that momentous meal.
Aside from the holiday's obvious elements of food and giving thanks, at its heart Thanksgiving is really about the people with whom we share it. After surviving appalling hardships and the loss of many loved ones starting a new life in America, the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving celebration was as much about the presence of friends and family at the table as the food that was on it.
Every Thanksgiving morning, before the scents of turkey and pumpkin pie overwhelm my senses, I take a moment to revisit memories of family gatherings from years past. Reviewing my mental snapshots is bittersweet, because people at our family's table change from one year to the next, many of them gone forever, their seats empty.
Growing up, most of my family's Thanksgivings included just my parents, my younger brother Rich, and me. Since Dad worked for the government, his career advancement meant moving several times for us.
Used to adapting to new places and having no friends or relatives nearby, the four of us made our own traditions and kept them faithfully. Home was never a particular over-the-river, through-the-woods kind of place for us. It was wherever our family happened to be.
On Thanksgiving, I set the table with Mom's best china and filled turkey salt and peppershakers inherited from my paternal grandmother. Rich always requested pitted black olives in the relish tray. At some point during the meal, he inevitably stuck one on every finger, reminding me of a sticky-toed tree frog.
We always complimented Mom on the food and were on our best behavior, for the most part. However, we also were co-conspirators in an annual ritual that involved making the serving spoon stand straight up in the thick gravy she prided herself on making. We were careful to do it when her back was turned, of course, and Dad always pretended not to notice.
As we reached adulthood, Rich and I added spouses and children to our parent's table. Those Thanksgivings bring memories of laughter, noise, spilled food, and most of all, my parents' eyes, shining with happiness as they took in each face around them.
There were other wonderful Thanksgivings spent at my husband's sister Martha's home, where the cacophony of six siblings and their families rose with each course, drowning out the sounds of groans that may have come from the food-laden table itself.
But the years when everyone could manage to get together became fewer and fewer. Children grew up; parents became grandparents; grandparents died. The time finally came when I fixed my first Thanksgiving dinner for just my husband, Pete, and son, Brien, a rite of passage for me as a wife and mother. As I took the turkey out of the oven, I was struck by the realization that the tradition of family gatherings we had taken for granted had been inevitably altered by life's changes.
When I was younger, I never thought about how brief the time with our extended families would be, that the number of Thanksgivings we share with those we love would be limited by distance, age, and life itself. Now, I appreciate the poignancy of each unique holiday gathering and have heartfelt empathy for those who are alone or can't be with family or friends.
Perhaps you will take a moment this Thanksgiving to look at each face around the table, as I will. As you enjoy the food, also drink in the conversation, the laughter, and the endearing - and perhaps annoying - ways of those around you.
What will make the meal memorable is your Uncle Fred's groan-producing puns, Dad's hacksaw turkey-carving method, Aunt Lydia's Canada goose honk of a laugh, and Mom's gravy, whether the wallpaper paste variety or not. And don't forget the barbed exchanges between middle-aged children, because we never outgrow sibling rivalry.
We can't count on sharing Thanksgiving with the same people, or sadly for some, anyone at all. When I celebrate this week with my brother, his family, and mine, I know I'll be thinking, as the Pilgrims themselves may have done, what a blessing, every single person who sits at our table this holiday.