This week I’m getting ready to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. And I love Thanksgiving.
I didn’t have much to do with creating or cooking many of my childhood feasts, except trying to perfectly fold the napkins, a chore assigned to me by my fairly exacting mother. Or bring my heavily loaded plate to the table, desperate not to spill its contents on the fancy dining room rug.
The actual Robinson meal was quite formal, with glowing silver and Mother’s best china, gleaming and squeaky clean. The scent of homemade rolls made our mouths water but the rules of table etiquette were strict. At the designated hour, my older brothers, Adam and Spencer and I were told to sit in our appointed chairs, usually with me to my mom’s right (another nod to that rug…) Then we waited, while everyone was seated. And then we waited some more, as we bowed our heads and Dad said the prayer, usually with tears in his eyes as he expressed gratitude for our many blessings.
Yet there was one more hurdle before politely chowing down. My mother, the hostess, had to raise her fork, which if she began chatting, might take forever. If a grandparent or two were there, it was as if we kids were lost in a Charlie Brown cartoon, where you could hear adults talking, “Waa.. waa,” but no words could be understood. All I could think about was how long it would take my mom to raise that beautifully polished utensil.
But there was another problem. Food was never high on Mother’s priority list. In fact, she shockingly whispered to me when I was much older, “I’d rather eat s…. than cook,” while she giggled at herself for using such an outrageous word. This disdain was proven every Thanksgiving, as she seemed completely unaware that my brothers and I were chomping at the bit to begin, eyeing our plates zealously to ensure nothing suddenly disappeared. I’m sure, looking back on it, that our demeanor was as subtle as a freight train. And I’m also sure that, in fact, Mother knew quite well what was going on around the table and carefully used that achingly slow moment to teach us a lesson.
Manners were manners.
F i n a l l y, her fork would make it into the air, and it was time to eat. Neither my overly starched dress nor my hair pulled back so tightly that my eyebrows were slightly raised stopped me from loving every mouth-watering bite. For Thanksgiving dinner was my favorite meal. By a long shot. It beat out tuna fish sandwiches with potato chips tucked into them, Kraft mac and cheese, and even fried chicken, although the last was (and still is…) a strong contender for first place in that contest.
Perhaps my most content part of the day was much later in the afternoon. Dad would be either watching football or listening to music, my brothers, stuffed with cornbread dressing and rolls, were doing their outside boy thing. It was quiet, and my mom and I would stand by the turkey, astonishingly allowed to be left out on the counter, and we’d pick off pieces from the mostly demolished bird, her going for the just-a-little-too-dry-without-oodles-of-gravy-on-it breast meat, and me for the succulent and much juicier thigh meat. (My bias is clear and unapologetic.) She was so much more relaxed than she’d been all day, and without understanding the why of that, I sensed that she was present in that moment. And finally a little hungry.
All of that may sound overly rigid and quite awful to you. But we didn’t know any different. That’s the way Thanksgiving went down. And that was our family.
You might wonder how all of this influenced me to craft my own Thanksgiving celebrations.
When I began, I tried to recreate some of what I’d found especially meaningful. But from the get go, things were far less formal. It was a different age, a different time. But the gratitude was still there — will always be there — for the rituals and the love shown to us by our parents. And by damn, the three of us learned some pretty decent manners.
My parents died well over a decade ago. And this week, as I pull out Mother’s silver piece that serves as home for my own attempt at decadent rolls, I will smile and think of her. When I recite the prayer that my dad always did, and tear up one more time, I will feel quite close to him. My husband and son will smile at me, knowing that I’m honoring those very rituals that created such impatience long ago.
This year, my oldest brother Adam lost his battle with esophageal cancer. He fought hard on many fronts and we all miss him terribly. He was brilliant. He was incredibly witty. He was hard-working, talented and a visionary in many ways, while givingcredit to others. He believed strongly in kindness. He left behind his wife of many years, two sons and a daughter-in-law, and now, quite joyfully, three grandchildren, the last of whom was born earlier this month. The rest of us are eager to support them, as they lost husband, father and grandfather, and as they, and we, move through grief in our own way.
I can still see my brothers Adam and Spencer as children, counting the seconds with me at Thanksgiving, praying that the rolls would be passed around one more time. Our families haven’t spent Thanksgiving with each other every year. But when we have gotten together for holidays or birthdays or simply togetherness, the warmth and love of the Robinson clan has been palpable. It’s been far from perfect. But it’s been and always will be — family.
Today I am very grateful for that family. I’m even grateful for my grief, because to me, it’s a sign of the depth of our family’s connection. I am more than grateful for Adam’s life and the way he lived it.
And those are blessings I will always treasure.
Have a meaningful and fulfilling Thanksgiving week.
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