I can’t be sure how old I am, maybe seven or eight at this Thanksgiving. I’m holding a notepad in my hand, my pen furiously writing notes, capturing key words: football, score. Turkey, one hour, mashed potatoes. Place cards, centerpiece. I’m dressed in my fancy clothes already, but that doesn’t slow me down. I’m tucked under the dining room table, knees drawn up to my chin. The table cloth drapes far enough down the sides so that I’m hidden from sight, except for maybe my stocking feet. I wait for a break in conversation. Grown-up shoes and ankles, calves attached to the people in charge move away from my hiding place, ready to carry out the next chore in a matrix of “things to do.” I see the clearing and I make my break, running for headquarters in the upstairs hallway. I meet my partner in crime, Raccoon 7, and we stealthily compare our spy notes.
At a certain age, from a certain vantage point, this is what Thanksgiving looked like to me. One thing I know now, that maybe I didn’t know then, is that the way we celebrate Thanksgiving, and what those celebrations look like, is always changing. Traditions are always evolving, same as me. From the very beginning, when our ancestors began cultivating this feast from the land, to now, celebrating this American day of family, food and football, there has been an slow trajectory of change.
As a child I understood Thanksgiving to be a certain way. Yes, it was traditional: there was always the classic Turkey, the obligatory pass around the table to list our thankfuls. And it was full: full of family, full of food. Full of more than my child eyes could see, I’m sure. And my memories can get hazy with nostalgia, the passing of time rounding the edges of specificity. But, like all families, mine had traditions, rituals or elements that were part of this holiday every year. Family traditions can be anchors, giving weight to these memories, holding them in place.
There were always cousins. And with cousins came big imaginations, and big energy. Elaborate games of orphanage, spies, or robbers. One year, when my older cousins knew what was cool (and that included Kevin Bacon), we staged a game of Tremors. We raced back and forth between the garage and the minivan parked twenty feet away, fending off these underground creatures in the driveway with nothing but pure wit. When the cousins were in town, us kids operated all on our own, only bothering with the parents for help finding a flashlight. That is, until it was time to eat.
Hands were held, heads were bowed, and we gathered around the table to give our thanks, big and small. Traditions continue: there was always rutabaga. I pushed it around my plate enough, but I never remember eating it. I wonder if I would like rutabaga now. There were always too many cooks in the kitchen, and probably too many drinks. There were always place cards created by whatever kids were in a crafting mood that day. There was always linen table cloths and napkins, a table set with the good china. It was fancy, and it was ordinary.
There were always these things, until there wasn’t anymore. People who were once small and childlike were no longer. Holidays become shared with more people, and then less. The menu changes: we decide no one eats rutabaga anymore. Even memories can warp and change – my sister remembers playing spy in a different house, with a different set of cousins. We are both fuzzy on details, but know full the sentiment of these vignettes of memory, these stories of our childhood.
There were the years when Family needed to find it’s legs again, circle the wagons, understand the restructuring of relationships. People got married. People got unmarried. There were the years of geographical distance. And, praise the Lord, there was the year of the Molasses turkey.
Now I’m the mother, herding my children in their fancy clothes into our station wagon, driving with our green beans to share with a family that I’ve grown into. Cousin chemistry is instant, and it makes me wonder if my kids will remember their Thanksgivings with the same fuzzy-edged fondness that I do. Today they chase circles around their grandmother’s house until they’ve finally been ushered outside where their energy explodes with peals of kid laughter. Here the traditions are thickly rooted, yet evolving, too.
One thing never changes: we have much to be thankful for.