Thanksgiving traditions old and new

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As I prepared for Thanksgiving dinner this morning, I thought of my mother. Maybe it was the smell of the food, maybe it was the question that I wanted to ask her: “How much garlic do you put in the pork stuffing?” But in my mind’s eye, I saw her with clarity standing at our kitchen sink, early in the morning, stuffing the bird, getting ready for her favorite holiday.

It was her favorite holiday because, as she often told me, there was nothing more to it than getting together with people you loved, sitting around, eating a meal, talking, catching up, reminiscing, sharing a quiet moment (and, in our house, a bunch of loud ones too). It was simply a day of togetherness — no gifts, no marketing pressure, no tree, no cards to send.

Not that it was nirvana — the inevitable critique from the family nitpicker that the gravy was too thick, or too greasy, or worse, that there was a bone shard in the carved meat often caused an uptick in family tension. But even the complaining became part of the family dynamic, part of the togetherness, part of the routine that we celebrated.

In recent years, we have taken to going around the table to say what we are thankful for, and all the usual items — food, family, house, friends — are covered. A few years ago, my middle son announced he was thankful that his papa was not suffering anymore because he was in heaven; it was the first time that there was an empty place at our table. At first, it felt like bringing Papa up would stifle that feeling of togetherness; that by noticing what was missing, we would feel instead the weight of the emptiness.

But it didn’t. It filled the table back up with stories of how he insisted on making a turnip, even though nobody except him liked it; how he would sit at the head of the table, hands folded on his paunch, looking pleased that someone remembered to make him a pumpkin pie; how he would fall asleep in his arm chair while watching the football game in the back room. He was there, even though he was not, by our act of remembering and reminiscing.

There are more faces that are missing from the Thanksgiving table now. Some cannot make it due to family obligations or illness, some are too far away, and some, like my mother, are with Papa now. They are all missed; but we will bring them back to the table with stories that weave them into the fabric of our lives.

As I eat the stuffing my mother taught me how to make, she will be there with me today, still part of the day that she loved through shared tradition, recollection and gratitude. We are starting a new tradition today that we stole from a friend — the awarding of a ridiculous looking turkey hat to the person who shares the best thankful reflection. I think my mother would have liked to have worn that hat.