Columns 2003

Family makes holiday table complete

Since mom’s death, my sister, brother and I have gotten into the pattern of spending Thanksgiving together.  Christmas is not a holiday I enjoy, and after spending one with me recently, my sister suggested I just shut myself up for the season so as not to poison it for others.

But I like Thanksgiving. To me it’s the perfect holiday.  Not too much decorating.  No presents to buy.  And, if you’re lucky, a great meal full of traditions and memories that stretch back through your whole life.  What’s not to like?

One year Judy came to Alaska to share Thanksgiving with my friends here. My cousin Toni came up too. They were both properly horrified to learn that we were going to have a dinner made by a restaurant and picked up on Thanksgiving Day.  My cousin made her chestnut stuffing anyway. She just didn’t know how it could officially be Thanksgiving if she didn’t.

This year we will spend Thanksgiving my favorite way – with my cousins. It doesn’t matter whose home we’re in.  Whether it’s Joe’s or Robbie’s or Toni’s, or whether we all squeeze into my sister’s tiny home, the one constant at all the locations is that we will be spending it together, the way family should.

The faces that I will look at around that table will be older than my memory ever lets me remember they are. When I think of my cousins, I still think of the boys and girls we were, not the men and women we are now. So there’s always that moment when I first see them again after a year has gone by and I wonder who that middle aged man with my cousin’s face is.  Then the hugs and laughs start and the years melt away and I’m looking at the boys and girls I grew up with again.

There’s an ease that comes with so many years of familiarity. When you once had your diapers changed side by side, it’s hard to take on airs with each other. And if you do, there is always someone around to remind you of one of your life’s more embarrassing moments so that you are quickly brought down to reality.

I watch my cousins’ children and wonder if they have any idea what a great gift their parents are giving them by giving them cousins as friends. When your brother is really annoying you, there is no more faithful ally than your cousin, who is always ready to get even, especially if she gets to get even with her brother at the same time.  The alliances and friendships forged at family dinners throughout childhood are the ones that have stood the test of time and are still the ties that bind me the closest.

My cousin Joe was at a military college during the sixties while I was in the middle of the peace movement.  We could not have been further apart in philosophy and our lives could not have taken more different roads. Yet the minute we are together again, the years melt away and he’s Schmozie again – the five year old who got in trouble with me when our mothers caught us playing doctor and nurse together.  My cousin Toni is the not a fifty something lawyer but a fifteen year old teaching me how to put rollers in my hair and sleep on them.  My cousin Marina is not the mother of four but the little kid that trailed after us older cousins and made us feel so grown up – we tell her she was her mother’s “afterthought”.

Each face at the table carries the full lifetime of my childhood memories in it. We’ve eaten turkey together more often than we can count.  We know that cranberry sauce is supposed to be round and in a can, not that fresh stuff the new healthy eating philosophy tries to foist on us.  We know that the appetizer on Thanksgiving is my dad’s clams casino and none other will do.  And we know that after dinner, we get up groaning and collapse into chairs in the living room wondering when we became our parents.

If their children are lucky, and I believe they are, they will watch us closely and learn that this is what family is.  And if they are really lucky, 40 years from now they will be sitting together in someone’s living room swearing never to overeat again and wondering when they became their parents.  But only if they are very lucky like I am.