Gratitude-November letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

November is shades of brown-tree branches without their leaves, farm fields devoid of crops, and art project turkeys made from brown paper bags. Even pie, whether it be apple, pumpkin or pecan, is a shade of brown and the onslaught of winter feels close at hand. But November also has Thanksgiving: the holiday whose name defines its mission.

This is the holiday that celebrates gratitude. Thanksgiving calls on Americans to stop their constant motion, to sit down at their table at mid-day and join together to give thanks for what is good in their lives. I love a teachable moment and Thanksgiving makes a holiday of it. Teaching children gratitude helps them recognize what they have rather than what they want, and learn to express thankfulness for it. At our Kalamazoo home in 1999 we celebrated Thanksgiving just the five of us. That was the year we expanded our Thanksgiving prayer beyond a traditional grace to include individually expressing what we were thankful for during the past year. With gusto, the kids identified and acknowledged what was good in their life. Sharing aloud gave their dad and I a glimpse into their thinking and an opportunity to validate their gratitude. It is a practice that we continue whenever we host Thanksgiving regardless of the number of people seated at the table.

I am humbled by this most American of holidays, especially since returning from living in Belgium. I picture Americans of all walks of life, from sea to shining sea, gathered around tables eating turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie for the particular purpose of showing thanks and gratitude. Rather than visions of fancy tables laden with food, I imagine alterations to the traditional approach. Whether it’s Peking turkey, grandma’s lasagna or apple empanadas on the menu, I like to consider how each ethnic group puts its thumbprint on the holiday. And I remember, family is a word that, especially on Thanksgiving, morphs beyond family of origin to blended family, urban family, or even ‘adopted for Thanksgiving’ family. It is the day when there is always room for one more at the table.

Over the years, we have shared Thanksgiving dinner with extended family which included the requisite happily unsupervised kids’ table, dined at a country club with grandpa, welcomed family friends to a ‘family of choice’ Thanksgiving, gathered with multiple American families in Waterloo after a half of day of school, and celebrated just the five of us several times including in an apartment in New York City our last year in Belgium when we couldn’t bear to spend another Thanksgiving apart. I haven’t clung to the venue or the menu, just to my people. I advise you to do the same.

There were times when I wished my kids had an annual Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving with multiple generations and all their cousins sharing the table, but that is a painting, not real life, and definitely not my life. All but one grandparent died in the early years of our marriage, our extended family struggled with planning and committing for events, and we moved away from Ohio where most everyone lives. An all-inclusive family Thanksgiving was not in the cards. Instead we claimed this holiday weekend to spend and celebrate as we chose. And we don’t let American consumerism crack our Thanksgiving weekend, try as it might. There is no shopping on Black Friday and no Christmas activities; instead we stay focused on the three Fs-food, family and football.

We created traditions, but allowed them to change as our family grew in age, taste and interests. When the kids were little I made cut-out cookies, which they decorated on Wednesday evening as a holiday kick-off. On Thanksgiving Day, we still like to watch the Macy’s Parade munching on pumpkin muffins and love a post-dinner hike before dessert, or shall I say before pie, lots of pie. Friday is an outdoor day, maybe the last of the leaf raking or exploring our new area and Saturday is reserved for the final Notre Dame football game and leftovers. Sunday is now a travel day.

Our Thanksgiving menu is traditional including loads of side dishes. The sides enlarged by choice and by error; including the year Patrick mistakenly opened cans of cream corn only to discover he liked it. Now it is a must have on the table alongside kernel corn and sometimes cornbread. We dress nicely but without fuss for the meal. We start with a champagne toast, linger at the table for hours telling stories before our hike and cap off the day with watching a family favorite movie, such as The Princess Bride, where we shout out the lines. A marvelously relaxing and enjoyable day even when I have spent the 24 hours prior to it, cooking and baking. And why? Because this holiday without presents offers my favorite gift: time together.

Thanksgiving this year will find us in Buffalo, where Mary Kate and John will host their first holiday. After Meg and I run the annual Buffalo Niagara Turkey Trot, I’ll play sous chef to her executive chef. Although I love being the mom-in-charge, I am happy to hand over the reins, watch her lead and pleased that she wants our family to be together around her table. And, if asked what I am grateful for-it will be that my gang is finally together this year. (and, of course, for The Cousins!)

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie




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