Adapted from a chapter in my book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns.”
I love Thanksgiving. Growing up, I looked forward to the quiet holiday tucked between my birthday and Christmas because I could eat all I wanted — an unusual occurrence when competing on a daily basis with six hungry and determined siblings. I discovered Thanksgiving meant more to me than abundant food, however, when I celebrated it with a college friend and her family.
I remember sitting with careful posture at a crowded table, wondering what I would talk about with these people who didn’t ask a blessing on the food and argued about the Viet Nam war while passing the gravy. I felt like a water balloon, full of bottled-up tears, ready to burst.
Then, unannounced, Aunt Mary, whom I adored, danced into my head. I smelled her perfume and saw her flushed cheeks as she kicked off her shoes after Thanksgiving dinner and performed a Charleston to music on my cousin’s transistor radio. Just a flash of memory, then she was gone; and the truth hit me: I was homesick.
Every Thanksgiving my family drove from Lake Shore to Provo in a bulging sedan, balancing foil-covered pans of dinner rolls and newspaper-wrapped casseroles, to gather in a church recreation hall with Mom’s family.
It was a large and raucous group: grandma, aunts, uncles, and too many cousins to count, ranging from college students striving to appear intellectual to babies being passed around. Grandma, Mom and my aunts ruled the kitchen, laughing and working in a precise choreography only they understood and shooing away interlopers looking for a taste of turkey.
A volleyball game with fluid teams ebbed and flowed at one end of the gym. Toddlers, playing tag, ran through the court, disrupting play, dodging between the legs of the players. Uncle Norley’s laugh boomed as he and Dad swapped hunting stories; Mr. Potato Head pieces crunched underfoot; and marbles from the Chinese checkers game bounced off the board. In a corner, teenagers clustered to pose and share insider information, banning younger siblings from their circle.
When Aunt Arlene didn’t finish lining the tables with butcher paper and later wondered why anyone would put walnuts in fruit salad, we noticed. But we reserved judgment; she was from Oregon, after all, and new to the clan.
During the meal, familiar stories were repeated; cousins compared ballooning bellies; and the cooks were applauded. Everyone agreed it was the best meal yet and that Grandpa would have loved it. Then Grandma prepared packets of food for each family to take home and hugged us to her as we left.
Being thankful is easily done when surrounded by loved ones.
Over the years, my definition of family has expanded and now includes the dear friends and new relatives who have brightened my favorite holiday.
Still, at some point during the happiness of Thanksgiving, a moment arrives when my mind rushes back to a family-filled gym where I see the smile of my still-young mom and enjoy the antics of her kin.