S. Lee Manning: Holiday seasons can be difficult. The memories of holidays past, of family members no longer present, of times that have disappeared, can cast a pall over the present day. For some, Christmas is the hardest holiday. For me, Thanksgiving is when I most acutely feel the ghosts of what has been and what is no longer.
When I was young, Thanksgiving meant a gathering of the clan.
My father’s two brothers and their families lived close to our house in Cincinnati, and his sister and her family lived in Dayton. We’d drive the interminable hour to Dayton, where we’d overeat, my personal favorite being the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. There’d be twenty or more people, enough so that we younger ones would be relegated to the kids table. Then the adults would argue about politics, sometimes in Yiddish, always loudly, and the kids would play or go for a walk. I loved the food, the parades, seeing family in my childhood days, and enduring it with the impatience of a spoiled teenager for the years between thirteen and college.
When my own kids were young, my husband and I became keepers of the flame for Thanksgiving, but the holidays were usually smaller. Other cousins, friends, nephews would expand the circle on occasion, but the core remained my husband and I, our kids, and our parents.
My parents would travel to our Trenton, New Jersey house from Cincinnati, my husband’s mother, who lived four blocks away, would come, and my sister and her husband attended intermittently.
It was a family cooking affair. My husband was on turkey and gravy. I did side dishes. The first time I recreated the sweet potato favorite from my youth, I proudly placed my creation on the table. My mother leaned over to admire and promptly knocked her wine glass over, shards of glass spraying across the perfectly bronzed marshmallow top. “It’s okay, I got it all,” she said as she tried to scoop out the slivers of glass. I took it away and threw it out. In subsequent years, I made sweet potato casserole without incident.
Every year, we’d eat a large breakfast, sometimes at the local I-Hop, planning to sit down to the feast at around two. Usually we’d underestimate just how long the turkey took to cook. Most years, the button on the turkey wouldn’t pop until closer to three o’clock. The kids would be hungry and cranky; my husband and I would be annoyed at their ingratitude, and the voices in the other room would rise.
There were the usual family fights. Religion. Politics. Temperature. My parents liked the house at 80 degrees, and we accommodated, but we’d be cooking in short sleeves. “Put a sweater on,” my dad would yell as the sweat literally poured down my face. “You’ll catch a cold.”
But finally we would sit down to the feast, with glasses of Beaujolais nouveau for the adults and sparkling cider for the kids, and indulge in the comfortable and familiar food that we ate once a year. We’d take a late afternoon walk around the neighborhood. Tree branches bare of leaves, our street glowed with the fading light of late afternoon in November in New Jersey. We strolled past the brick and stone Colonials that had made this neighborhood the showpiece of Trenton when it was built, and then feeling virtuous, we’d return to eat pie and ice cream.
The older generation is mostly gone now: my parents, Jim’s mom, the aunts and uncles in Cincinnati and Dayton, alive only in our memories. Yesterday, Jim and I traveled from our current home to our old home in Trenton where our son, Dean, still lives, and we’ll be here for Thanksgiving. It will be a quiet affair. Just four of us from the family: Dean, his partner, Jim, and me. Our daughter and her husband, who live in LA and can’t afford the exorbitant plane fares this time of year, won’t be here nor will my sister nor any of my cousins who are scattered across the United States. There are good things about a society that is so very mobile, but it does mean fewer people at holidays. There will not be many more Thanksgivings in this house – we will be selling it within one or two years, once Dean is finally ready to move out.
It looks like Thanksgiving in our old neighborhood. The unraked brown leaves blow in the November wind, and here and there, a pumpkin left over from Halloween still adorns the steps of the houses that remain just as stately as when our children were small. Some of the more ambitious neighbors will be decorating their homes with lights for Christmas before the Thanksgiving leftovers are even cold.
But it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving. It feels small and kind of sad. I am haunted by the ghosts of Thanksgivings past, by memories of the large extended family gatherings of my youth, and of the smaller but sweet celebrations here in this house. I keep remembering the end of Catcher in the Rye, “Don’t ever tell anyone anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
Still, things change. Life is a continual ballet, twirling between sadness at the loss of the old and joy in the new.
So it’s time to recreate the holiday. I’ll make my sweet potato casserole, this year with Vermont maple syrup instead of brown sugar, and the stuffing will be gluten free for Dean’s newly discovered gluten sensitivity. Maybe expand the circle: invite acquaintances who are feeling bereft to join us this year. And remember, even as I miss those who won’t be here, I have so many reasons to be thankful.
Recipe: sweet potato casserole:
Bake 6-8 sweet potatoes until soft. Peel. Mash with half a stick of butter, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and maple syrup to taste – a minimum of a cup. Spread evenly through a greased casserole dish and top generously with marshmallows. Bake at 350 until marshmallows are brown. Avoid dropping glass into dish. Serve.