Except for maybe twice, I have spent the last 27 Thanksgivings with my husband Frank’s family. Even if I’d wanted to jet off to Las Vegas where my parents retired, distance, logistics, pregnancy, babies or work intervened.
The first Thanksgiving, we had been (on and off) dating for just a few months and I hoped the invitation signaled that we were serious this time. My job wouldn’t allow me time enough to make the 2700 mile round trip, and I was missing my family.
And though I probably should have known better—I’d been at his parent’s home a few times before—perhaps I was expecting (wishing?) to find something akin to what I’d grown up with: a holiday table draped in a linen tablecloth, laid with the good china, relatives in fancy dress, the football game on but not blasting, everyone in a state of heightened busyness and atwitter with celebration, the cut glass bowls waiting on the sideboard.
I arrived at Frank’s parent’s house in heels, wearing a new outfit, my hair and make-up just so, bearing a bouquet of flowers and a plate of home-made brownies (a last minute adjustment, figuring a bakery bought cake might send the signal that I wasn’t domestic). My future father-in-law greeted me in the jeans he wore that summer to tend the garden, my mother-in-law wore a sweat suit. Someone was setting out paper plates, the television was pulled up near the dining room table. There was a general air of relaxed comfort, as if this was just an ordinary Sunday afternoon, which I mistook for a lack of interest in the occasion.
When my mother-in-law saw the brownies she said, “Why did you do that? Frankie doesn’t like brownies.” I would soon learn that in my mother-in-law’s universe, this was not an insult or even negative, but simply her way of making an observation. I learned to get over it. I’d learn also to bring only the exact foods I was assigned, to leave the dressy clothes in the closet, to shout over the sounds of the football announcer. I’d learn to field my mother-in-law’s remarks without an eyeblink, with a smile even: Your hair is too long! Why did you bring so much bread? What am I going to go with that?
I’d also figure out that in his family, clothing and china, formality and the right impression had less to do with a successful holiday, with family or celebration, than the ease of companionable casualness. Still, those were my family’s traditions, they were lovely traditions, and I missed them. Whether or not they were in any way important, to me they meant something—a kind of reverence for the holiday, or at least a sign that gathering for this meal was different than having meat loaf any other day.
For a while, I assumed that my new family’s lack of formality meant the day held little significance. In future years though, I noticed that my two sons were able to do something on holidays that I could never manage as a child: Relax. Have fun. Not worry about spilling gravy on new clothes or dropping a Waterford goblet.
Eventually, I would figure out my in-law family was not ignoring the rites of Thanksgiving, but perhaps practicing gratitude in the most basic way: by being content with the everyday.
In more recent years, we mark Thanksgiving at my husband’s sister’s house in South Jersey. Frank does the driving, his 93 year-old mother and 91 year-old father in the back seat, mental faculties firmly intact, bundled in warm casual jackets, bones weary but willing to make the trip because it’s Thanksgiving, and the family is gathering.
I’m now happy to forego anything more fancy than casual black pants with the most forgiving waistband. We eat off (heavy duty but sometimes very pretty) plastic or paper plates; two loud televisions in adjacent rooms blast football and the National Dog Show; and a lean-back, let’s-relax, take-a-load-off atmosphere prevails.
I still miss the lovely holiday tables my mother created, and the sight of her orchestrating the kitchen while wearing a fresh crisp apron over a sparkly new blouse, hair just so. I miss seeing my father in a natty sweater pouring some fancy wine. I do miss formality, that certain something in the air. But I’m certain I miss most keenly now because I miss them, because now there’s no going home for any holiday, ever.
I miss that other way of doing Thanksgiving not because it’s better than what I am blessed with now and have grown accustomed to, but because it’s a wonderful memory of how things were in my childhood home. Something else to be grateful for.
And on Christmas—which became “my” holiday years ago—I use the good china, always. My mother-in-law asks, “Why?” I know why.