Growing up, Thanksgiving was an annual trip from our home in the southeast suburbs on180th to mom’s parents’ in the northeast suburbs on 69th. My mom, dad, brother John, Grandpa and Grandma Goodson and my Uncle Ed would crowd around the small table in a corner of the kitchen. The meal was a mix of country simplicity, my grandmother’s influence and some unpredictable flare from my grandfather. His stuffing and pumpkin pie are legendary and we still use his recipes. It was a fun, somewhat quiet day of visiting, maybe playing outside if the weather allowed.
The family tradeoff was an annual trip to southeast 76th for Christmas Eve at my dad’s parents’ home. We’d join Grandpa and Grandma Schmotzer, Uncle Virgil, Aunt Faye and our cousins David and Diane, Uncle Joe and his wife (he had quite a few over the years). The meal was in the dining room with “good” china and all that went with it. Liquor flowed before, during and after the meal. There was loud music and louder conversation. Sometimes arguments would break out and result in an early departure or two.
Christmas Day was at our house with both sets of grandparents, Uncle Ed and Mr. Gill. Mr. Gill was a friend of my grandfather. I think he was from England and he’d give my brother and me a silver dollar each year. Women wore dresses and men and boys wore white shirts and ties, and hard (or dress) shoes. I always hated hard shoes.
This rhythm was set and I thought it would always be that way. Yet by the time I finished high school, what I thought was unchangeable had begun shifting. My parents relocated and the cousins and Uncle Ed had gone to school or moved away.
Soon enough I had moved and married bringing new options with competing interests concerning holidays. For a few years, Connie and I bounced between our parental homes for the big two (Thanksgiving and Christmas). In the fifth year of our marriage, we moved to the far north of a neighboring state and soon our family grew with the addition of two sons. Increasing the complexity was my parents’ divorce and eventually stepfamilies. We now had to drive five to eight hours to visit three homes in three cities.
I am uncertain if it was a clear intentional act or something we drifted into, but about thirty years ago we made a change in how we celebrated Thanksgiving. We had a deepening friendship with a couple, Julie and Rick. Connie had met them when all three attended the same college. They had three boys and we had two. They lived near our parents. They made the drive north one year and it quickly became our new tradition.
Soon enough we had our own rhythm. They would arrive as soon as possible and stay as long as they could. Thanksgiving was days, not just one day. The boys played, shifting their interests over the years. We watched movies, talked, played games, watched football, went for neighborhood walks, cooked and ate for the duration.
We started Thanksgiving with a morning service, at the church I served as a staff member. For lunch we would volunteer at the local mission for the community Thanksgiving meal and in the later afternoon we would have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The meal always included more than the two families. Extended family and friends new and old would join the celebration. It was predictably unpredictable.
Throughout the year we looked forward to the annual get-together. Conversations of times past and plans for the next gathering frequently popped up. It was a time of rest, joy, celebration, and being, being together. Some would attend once, others for years. We’d get together with Julie and Rick at other times throughout the year, but Thanksgiving became sacred. That is until Julie died of a brain tumor in May of 2001.
With Julie gone, so much of our lives became unhinged. Nothing worked, nothing mattered. It never would be the same. Somehow Thanksgiving became this huge hole reminding us of the loss. It became a time of wondering and wandering. The very essence of faith and belief was challenged in ways we had never experienced. To be honest, by this time the older boys had begun to shift into their new adult identity and thereby new patterns, but we hadn’t noticed.
There were a couple of Thanksgivings doing anything for temporary survival. We were not going to try to keep the past tradition alive; it couldn’t continue without her. We doubted a new tradition was possible. Maybe we felt we had lost Thanksgiving and would need to accept it as a time to endure, a stark reminder of what was, what was lost and what would never be again.
But within a few years something happened. Thanksgiving celebrations returned to our home. It was different, but it became good. Julie’s youngest son brought his wife and eventually their two children. New people joined the mix. Our sons married and grandkids arrived. The house was again full and some sense of a new sacred developed. Julie was missed, but honored in our gathering and thankfulness.
Annually there are tears and laughter as we each share words of thanks around the table before the meal begins. We often rework Psalm 136 to include our own stories. There is a sense that we can endure all that life brings our way as we are fortified in such times together.
While preparing for this year’s gathering we learned that some of the next generation are making changes to begin to establish their own, new traditions. There was an initial sting. We had worked so hard to reestablish something special. We were not ready for another change.
An outside observer might tell us it was never the same way twice. Every year there were shifts. We are all different people with each new day. Watching our kids grow should have made us aware of this. The mix of people and activities was in constant flux. The reality is that Thanksgiving has always been a work in progress, shifting with seen and unseen forces. And at best we have found joy in living into the moment, whatever it looked like. Being thankful, sharing life and meals, and inviting others into the circle will always be worthwhile.
I am uncertain what the next phase will be, but I hope we will be able live into it with openness, acceptance, celebration and thankfulness.