'Tis the season. Pumpkin pie. Gluten-free stuffing. The mad dash to the supermarket when we realize a key ingredient is missing, despite our many lists. We wonder if any place will be open, but there is always some store that is. A math challenge: How to get too many dishes on the table at the same time without having at least two of them be more lukewarm than you had hoped? And, finally, the dinner. We hold hands and go around the table and share what we are thankful for until someone gets mad at someone else and flees the table, returning only to eat pie an hour later, the rest of us too relieved, too anxious, to do anything but welcome the angry one back to the table.
Ahh, Thanksgiving. Another opportunity for families to come together. Another moment when college children return, flying in from hither and yon to be welcomed, made much of, only to discover that they no longer quite fit in the landscape of their former lives. A moment for parents to imagine that this time all will be well -- everyone will be cheery. This year, we pledge not forget the rolls, as we did for a spectacular run of years when my mother hosted Thanksgiving.
Ritual, festivity, plenty of tasks, companionable chopping, lots of clean up and through it all, I take stock: "How are we really doing as a family? Are we okay? Are we good enough parents? Are we raising good enough children?" I snap the ends off the string beans, peel the potatoes, mix the yams with orange juice and ginger ale, give directions, encourage the bakers, drag the eleven year old away from the Macy's parade on TV to his task of setting the table. Yes, forks still go on the left. I am glad to have a clear focus for the day, a set of finite tasks. I am grateful to have us all under one roof again, but conscious that, as in all family events, we are still ourselves. Wherever we go, we take ourselves with us: our collective tensions, regrets, hopes. Why is it families can wound so quickly the ones they love most with a glance or word? Smoothing over is often required in the same way that a piecrust sometimes grows too thin and needs a little bit pinched from a thicker place. In our house, we are grateful for Kerro, who is not a real relative, but a chosen one, a fixture at most Thanksgiving feasts. Having him with us is like having a steady force nearby, unaffected by sibling rivalry, able to restore my own spirits with a quotation from a play, a memory of some long-ago production of our youths.
Childhood memories of Thanksgiving found me snuggled with a book, ignoring the drama of too many relatives in my grandparents' house. As a young married woman, I enjoyed planning the menu, collecting those who did not have a local family with whom to celebrate, and driving for hours from N.Y.C. to Eagles Mere to spend the long weekend. We took walks in the cold, looking for bittersweet or cats' tails for the table; the whole weekend had an unhurried tempo. I remember details of Thanksgivings I thought I had forgotten: raised voices, frayed tempers, a brother slamming out of the house, furious. I recalled taking refuge in a movie theatre, watching Titanic when the drama in someone else's kitchen grew too intense to endure. And then, joyfully, came our children. After our eldest daughter's first Thanksgiving, we all came down with a stomach bug -- that was an unforgettable Friday!
So, here is what I am working on before the big day: lowering my expectations. My older sister, mother of four, taught me this long ago. On any capital letter event involving children or any other family members, lower your expectations. Thanksgiving may not be the Currier and Ives fantasy we are asked to imagine it will be. People who love each other may quarrel, but such squabbles don't mean there isn't lots of love in the family. You might not have enough matching napkins. Perhaps you will forget to buy the obligatory chocolate turkeys wrapped in foil that no one actually eats, but that are nonetheless required for the table. No one will mind. It's possible you will leave out a key ingredient in some dish, and those eating it will smile politely and not ask for seconds. Tempers may fray. Children may cry. You might even cry a little, quietly, because no one appreciates all the hard work of prepping these crazy meals, how tired you are from standing all day, how exhausted everyone is from the effort of being polite for a long time.
Last year, my husband, Seth, asked if we could avoid the big production of Thanksgiving all together: the heavy traditional foods, the hoopla. He is a vegetarian, so a meal centered on turkey has no appeal. I said I'd take his suggestion under consideration. This year, we are changing it up. We won't be here in Ohio in our beautiful kitchen with my grandmother's lovely china on the table. Instead, we've moved the whole enterprise to N.Y.C., to our friends' apartment on the Upper West Side. The recipe folder is packed in my carry-on bag. A change of scenery. An opportunity to celebrate in a different setting. What is essential is ritual, togetherness, love: messy, unrealistic, hopeful love. I am trying to follow my sister's advice, to lower my expectations, acknowledging that it might be too windy to watch the parade, that not everything will go as planned. But, a little flicker of excitement licks irrepressibly -- I am excited to see our two grown daughters and their friends; I am excited to be with our N.Y.C. friends in a city I love. I know there will be challenging moments. I am thankful all the same, thankful that my biggest worry is not about the food, but about how I will behave. Can I model patience, grace and humor even as we prepare the food without a microwave? Can I be gentle with myself and with others? Can I keep the real purpose of the meal -- gratitude -- close all weekend? Here's hoping.