Nancy Reiter Lauritzen
As we gather together this year for another Thanksgiving dinner, it is obvious our family is beginning to expand. The table in my mother's dining room has been extended with additional leaves and, for the first time in many years, we had to bring in extra chairs from the bedroom. I look around the table and realize my son has taken my spot at the end of the table. The place reserved for me all those years, beginning when my first child was sleeping on Mom's bed, is now his so he can jump up if the baby cries. My new place, which once belonged to my mother, is now next to the kitchen, so I can jump up to refill empty bowls and platters. My mother, whose spot I have usurped, is now at the other side of the table, and as I glance across at her, realizing she looks more like Grandma every year, I think that our musical chairs game represents more than just an expanding family. It is a completion of the changing of the guard from one generation to another.
As the family sits down, all rather tentative in their new positions, I remember previous Thanksgivings, and think about the family continuity, or lack of it, through the years. I realize our changing of the guard today does not include a complete abdication of roles or dropping of traditions. Mother still tries to force me to "just try" the creamed onions and, as the steaming bowl progresses around the table, I notice she is the only one who takes a generous portion. Some of the new guests at our table, which include my son's new family, take a "polite" small serving and quickly pass them on. To my mother, creamed onions means Thanksgiving. To me, they represent a battle for adult status and the only discordant memory from childhood Thanksgivings.
For the first twenty years of my life, Thanksgiving meant going to my Great-Aunt Cora's in a small town a few miles from my grandparent's. We would drive there in Grandpa's old 1947 Ford with me wrapped up in the scratchy army blanket he kept in the back seat. Riding along, I would anticipate the warmth behind the big oak door and the comfort of the large black cookstove in the kitchen. Pulling up to the house, the steamy windows of the side porch were evidence that the feast was well into its preparation. My anticipation always included the hope that , this year, they would forget to make the creamed onions.
Walking into Aunt Cora's beautiful old Victorian home through the large oak front door, usually reserved for company only, was one of the traditions we followed each year. The rest of the year we entered from the door on the side porch, directly into the large square kitchen where Aunt Cora and her daughter-in-law, Aunt Mary, spent most of their time. Holidays were a time when even family was treated like company and we all would sense the formality of our celebration as we hung our coats on the tall coat tree with its ornate designs polished to a mirror-like gloss. Boots were taken quickly to the kitchen to be warmed and dried behind the cookstove, so they wouldn't make puddles on the shining oak floor. After warm hugs from Aunt Mary and lavender scented, powdery soft cheek-- brushes from Aunt Cora, our first order of business was always to "view" the bird.
The pocket doors to the dining room stood open, framing the huge table that looked as if Norman Rockwell could be standing in the wings, waiting for the family to gather. The creamy damask tablecloth, gleaming crystal and polished silver all accented Aunt Mary's Thanksgiving centerpiece, a work of art she lovingly created every year. Starting early every fall, on her daily walks to the post office, she would gather the most beautiful and perfect leaves she could find. They were then polished, preserved with glycerine, and scattered in an oval on the center of the table, to frame the huge cornucopia that overflowed with gourds, polished apples and frosted grapes. Pausing on our way to the kitchen to ohh and aah over each leaf's perfect beauty, was an important part of our yearly ritual. "Snitching" a grape without Aunt Mary catching us was a special private ritual for Grandpa and me, and we were always caught in the act.
As we entered the kitchen through the swinging door, the aroma would surround and invade our senses, and when the door shut behind us, the formality we felt melted away. The bird would be "viewed" and as everyone offered to help or just sat down at the round oak table to visit, I would find my favorite spot beside the cookstove. When I was young, it was on Grandpa's lap in the rocker and as I got older, on the braided rug beside it. Watching as the preparation progressed and the steaming dishes were carried to the dining room, I would try not to think about the hated creamed onions, which they never once forgot!
Seated at the bountiful table, my anticipation of the glorious meal was always clouded by the knowledge that my aversion for those onions would not escape notice by anyone at the table. Each of the adults would try their particular brand of persuasion to convince me to "just try some." Throughout all the twenty years I spent Thanksgiving at Aunt Cora's, I was never considered adult enough to just ignore those damned creamed onions and I continued to stubbornly refuse to "just try some." Now here I am, at a different house and a different table, past mid-century in age, but my mother is still trying to convince me they are good.
Now it is my turn to try to convince the younger generation, "You don't know what you are missing" by not trying my fruit salad, loaded with marshmallows, which they all say they hate. I sit at the table and wonder if when my mother is gone, I will decide it isn't Thanksgiving without creamed onions. Or will I just keep making my fruit salad with marshmallows, so that becomes the traditional Thanksgiving terror for the next generation? As much as some things change, there are so many family traditions that remain, even when they are disguised with new faces, menus, tables and houses. My mother and I are the only two remaining family members who remember Thanksgiving at Aunt Cora's, yet today seems, in many ways, much like what I recall from over forty years ago.
We still "view" the bird as soon as we enter the house, always declaring it "the best one yet."My mother sets her table in a much less formal manner than Aunt Cora, but the blue and white check tablecloth reminds me of the one that covered that round table in Aunt Cora's kitchen, and she has surrounded a pile of grapes and apples with some "perfect" silk leaves. The youngest person at the table is first to tell what they are grateful for, a tradition that my mother remembers from her childhood. Our conversation still includes politics, football, and the newest members of the family, just as it did forty years ago.
Whether as a child, parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, or through the loss of family members, each person in all the generations experiences this changing of the guard. As we gather every year, the ghosts of previous generations hover around the table and traditions are passed down with the change. This year, I realize for the first time, that I will someday be the only one who remembers Thanksgiving at Aunt Cora's. I will someday have the power to eliminate those awful creamed onions from our holiday menu.
As I think about this, I glance up at my mother, who is looking at me, and realize she too has been reminiscing. I know her memories must be similar to mine--just more of them. I grin , "snitch" a grape from the centerpeice, and ask Mom to pass the bowl that is sitting next to her. "Maybe I'll 'just try' some of those creamed onions."