My Family’s Ever-Changing Thanksgiving Tradition by
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Prompted By Family

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I look at this photo and sigh. This was my family’s Thanksgiving table seventy years ago. I’m the second child on the left, sharing a meal with two generations now gone. In fact, my dear cousin sitting directly across from me has also died. But the tradition of sharing a meal with folks you love is in my soul. I have had to adapt to the way this holiday evolved for me personally. No problem. I will always love Thanksgiving.

I don’t remember much about Thanksgiving as a kid except for how much I loathed that plate of jelled cranberries. If you are a person of a certain age, you know what I mean. The slices had strange grooves on the side. My father loved this delicacy, but I hated the looks of it. It was only as an adult that I learned this version of cranberry sauce came straight from the can, and that cranberries could actually be tasty if prepared differently. I have vague memories of growing up celebrating the Thanksgiving in the photo with my siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. There must have been some system of deciding which side of the family would be invited which year, as both sides lived in the Detroit area. Of course, we ate turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. And that mushy green bean casserole with onion rings. My father never had the patience to carve the turkey at the table, so that task was delegated to the women folk preparing the meal. I know, not very Norman Rockwell.

The Thanksgiving of my daughter’s birth definitely gave new meaning to this holiday for me. My parents spent the day with my young son, my husband, and me staring at my belly. I was “overdue” and not in a great mood. I have no memory of what we did to celebrate that Thanksgiving, but I banished my parents by the end of the weekend. Thanksgiving was early that year, November 22. They left November 25, and my daughter was born November 26. Yes, I was a jerk. They literally turned around and came back from Michigan to care for my two-year-old.

The year of 40 guests!

After that year, Thanksgiving (combined with my daughter’s birthday celebration) was all mine, and for 45 years, I have hosted it in various evolving iterations. My husband’s ever-expanding family lived in town, so they always came. My parents came every year as well. For a time, my siblings and eventually their wives drove in from Michigan. Years passed and the turkey carving honors were delegated to my husband – still done in the kitchen just as his mother taught him. By this time, my brothers had kids and splintered off to celebrate with their own families in Michigan Still, the numbers grew and grew. The Thanksgiving/birthday celebration had become overwhelming. I was squeezing three tables into my home to accommodate up to 40 guests. I knew my relationship with Thanksgiving was in trouble. It was time for family counseling, as a divorce from this holiday was inevitable. My kids were now married and having kids. It was just too much.

Thus, Thanksgiving evolved once again. My mother-in-law and my parents died, my husband’s side of our family broke into smaller units to celebrate, and in recent years my husband and I gathered with two of my kids, and their families. And my grandson asked to help carve the turkey.

This year, we regroup again, as my younger daughter and her kids will be joining her new husband’s family and we will have to alternate years. We will still celebrate my daughter’s birthday with her family of five, a small Thanksgiving gathering. Despite this, my Thanksgiving menu leaves little room for creativity. No matter how many people come, I feel obliged to make everyone’s favorites. Of course, there are the turkey, dressing, fresh cranberries, vegetables, and pumpkin pie. But I also need entrees for vegetarians and my fussy grandkids who will not eat most of these traditional foods. And we will have to figure out who will carve this year’s turkey. It may be time for one of my granddaughters to serve as sous chef.

Some of the grandkids and family back in 2013

The way I visualize my ever-changing Thanksgiving configurations is like cell division. As family ages and grows, smaller cells split off. You remember those pictures of mitosis in which blobby parent cells pull apart to create two cells. Eventually, there are many cells gathering around tables. Like me, I hope they both create their own traditions and carry warm memories of past gatherings to remind them of what really matters and why they should be thankful.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    What a poignant recapturing of your family Thanksgiving as it evolved through the years. Since my day job is in cell biology, I love your comparison to cell division. A beautiful sequence of warm memories and photos.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Very nice way to capture the ever-changing family dynamics, Laurie. I love that you equate them to cellular biology. Great analogy! Also the ebb and flow of marriage, babies, death and moves. Change happens and we must adapt. It seems that you share all of that with us in this story. Thank you. Enjoy your holiday.

  3. Suzy says:

    Nice story, Laurie, about the way Thanksgiving has evolved over the years in your family. I have just finished our small dinner this year, and can’t help feeling nostalgic for the enormous gatherings of my childhood. But as you say, cells split off and form new organisms. Sometimes they come back together again, which is nice.

    You mention several times that people drove in from Michigan. I was trying to discern where you lived, which was obviously not Michigan, but close enough to drive there. Couldn’t figure it out though. Is it a secret or will you divulge that information?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I live in Evanston, IL, home of Northwestern University and just north of Chicago. In my generation of extended family, it was just me and one cousin who did not stay in the Detroit area suburbs. Went to school at University of Michigan & met my husband there. He was from Chicago, so here we are 50+ years later.

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