When I was a child, the day before Thanksgiving was always the day that we packed our suitcases into the car and went to the farm. My mother was raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and when her father died many decades earlier, my mother’s brother took over farming. The excitement only grew as the day went on and each mile marker was passed, bringing us closer and closer to my mother’s childhood home. A place where I could run around to my heart’s content, checking on the baby pigs, wandering around the farm machinery building, and walking to the natural well that the family had named “Boy Blue.”
I am the youngest of all of my cousins. Number ten of ten. My oldest cousin is 17 years older than me, and he, along with other older cousins and my brother, can’t come because they live too far away. Even still, I have plenty of cousins to hang out with, and all of my aunts and uncles are here.
As we walk up the stairs into the old white farmhouse, I can smell the smells of farm and good food. We carry our suitcases up the narrow, steep steps. I will either be bunking with my cousins in their room, or we may camp out on the living room floor. My mom will sleep in her childhood bedroom.
The first night is filled with talking, telling stories of long, long, ago, laughing, playing games, and watching TV. If I get tired of what is happening in the living room, I can go and sit at the dining room table and join in on the game, or I can go into the TV room and see what my cousins are watching, or I can go into the kitchen and listen to my mom and her sisters talk about stories of my grandmother and the older generation of relatives. Once I tire of that I can go outside and investigate the farm.
On Thanksgiving Day, the women prepared the typical turkey dinner with all of the fixings. The adult table held all of my aunts and uncles and a few of my older cousins. I, of course, sat at the kids table. There was always a big plate of black olives for us to stick onto our fingers. Wiggling our fat black fingers at one another, we would slurp the olives off one by one until all of our fingers were empty. Then we would reload and do it over and over again until all of the black olives were gone.
My aunt Bernice always brought her famous raspberry jello salad, which I later found out was actually a recipe that my aunt Carla had given her, but Bernice had became famous for. There was turkey, duck, green beans, potatoes, rolls, and several different pies to choose from. Everyone filled their plates and ate until there was no room left. After cleaning up the meal, there were more games, puzzles, television shows, or stories to be shared. Aunt Dolores and my mom would typically be playing cards while aunt Bernice and Carla talked, and uncle Ralph, uncle Bill and uncle Don would be watching football. Most of the kids left Uncle Bill alone because he loved to grab your funny bone as you walked past him. Once he got you, you would take great care to climb around and under the table to avoid him.
As the years went on, more people came into the family and our celebrations changed a bit, but they were always held at the farm. My older cousins returned, now married and with children. After the Thanksgiving meal was cleaned up, all of the adult cousins (which now included me), would go out to the pub to have drinks, play pool, and talk silly and sing songs until the wee hours of the morning. When we returned to the farm, we would raid the refrigerator for leftovers. A new tradition began, where my mother would stumble into the kitchen and scold us for being too loud and eating up too much of the leftovers. We ignored her and continued anyway, shushing each other once in awhile.
As more time passed, people slowly began to fade from our family gatherings. My father was the first to fade from that picture, as he died when I was very young. My memories at the farm never included him. As a teenager and then a young adult, one uncle and then another faded away. Thanksgivings were now held at my home, with my mother, my mother and father-in-law, and my children. After many years, my mother was no longer with us, and shortly after that my aunt Bernice joined her. That Thanksgiving, aunt Carla invited me back to the farm with my own family. We brought our suitcases up the steep stairway and slept in my mother’s childhood bedroom. We sat at the kitchen table telling stories about Thanksgivings long, long ago. When it was time to eat, I took my new place at the adult table while my youngest daughters wiggled black fingers at one another while sitting at the kids table. Games were played, football was watched, and the kids wandered around the farm investigating the buildings that used to hold the pigs, the cows, and the horses. There are no animals anymore. My uncle retired many years ago and wasn’t able to pass the tradition of family farming on to his own son. My cousin couldn’t do the work, and family farms were dying at the time he was of age to choose a profession.
This year, I’m back in my home again. I’m getting the house ready for my family to come. We will talk, play games, watch TV, and send the little kids outside to play. We will talk about our table of guests, which has also faded over the years. We will remember my mother, my mother-in-law, and we will miss having my father-in-law tremendously as this is our first holiday since he has faded away. But we will also be creating the stories that my youngest children will share at their own Thanksgiving tables a long, long, long time from now, when my presence with them will have faded. This, I think, is the true tradition behind the holidays. Remembering and creating memories. I hope that you enjoy yours.