Ok, not really, but it’s pretty close. My parents’ home has a large ‘great room’ with a vaulted ceiling and huge stone fireplace. It’s normally the least used room in the house; big, and kind of echo-y. It’s also the only room in which we could hope to seat 17 people around something resembling a single table.
Yep, 17. We haven’t had this many family members gathered for a holiday in several years, and the logistics took some contemplation. There’s been a generation shift in our family over the last decade or so, and the transition has been a bit uncertain. My parents are both only children, and so the holidays of my youth were a combined gathering of our core family unit and both sets of my grandparents with the occasional addition of the odd great-uncle, aunt or cousin. But, since neither set of grandparents had any other children to work into the equation, their presence at holidays was a given. We rotated major holidays between the three houses or occasionally a rented cabin or condominium. The biggest logistical quandaries were who brings the turkey and who’s in charge of the Christmas tree.
Fifteen years ago, I married an only child, and the traditions continued essentially unchecked as our family, ameboa-like, absorbed my husband and mother-in-law into the matrix. Then, roughly a decade ago, my sister met her now-husband, and things got more complicated. Mike (yes, my sister and I married men with the same name – get over it.) has a brother and sister with spouses and children of their own, and a family with its own tradition of large, boisterous gatherings. This was unsettling. Suddenly, my sister’s presence at a family holiday was no longer guaranteed. Granted, there were any number of childhood Christmases where I would gladly have sent her a few hundred miles in any direction if only I could find a box large enough or a jet pack, but as adults, we’ve reached that intimate, bickering symbiosis known only to two people with shared history of hair-pulling fights and sneaking in the cold dark to open Christmas stockings. The first Christmas morning where my pre-dawn companion(s) in stocking reconnassaince was(were) not my sister but my children, was the first holiday where I felt the jolt of time. I wasn’t the kid anymore. I had moved up a rung on the generation ladder. And, I didn’t like it.
During this same time period, the other end of the ladder shifted. The grandparents, around whom our family memories of holiday foods and traditions center, were aging, fading, and dying. When my maternal grandmother died – fittingly on Christmas Day – two years ago, the shift was complete. Like it or not, each of us had stepped into the next role. My children are now the children, not just generational hangers-on. Santa comes for them, not for Steph and me; they put the olives on their fingers at Thanksgiving. Mike and I are the parents; my mother-in-law and parents are the grandparents. And, in this shift, our traditions have been tweaked and our core unit has shrunk.
This Thanksgiving, however, through some cosmic serendipity, we have expanded again. My brother-in-law’s siblings both had other Thanksgiving plans, and so, for the first time, his parents join our holiday. The multi-cellular family organism has collected other matter as well. My father’s cousin, his wife, and two sons arrived yesterday as we sat down to bowls of clam chowder. After the required awkwardness of kids forced to join a table of half-strange adults, the bowls were cleared and the house pounded with laughter, shouting, and the clatter of billiard balls.
And Mom, who had called me no fewer than three times while I was in Texas on business wanting help with logistics and cooking (at one point, she was demanding a pecan pie) regardless of my geography or other commitments, said while stirring the gravy, “I’m enjoying this. This is good.” Her tone had about the same level of amazement as if the candles in the great room had actually started floating. Our places have shifted over the years, and we’ve had to rearrange furniture and expectations, but the core magic of Thanksgiving remains unaltered: food, fun, and family.