Many of you will recognize the above phrase as being the opening of Bob Hope’s special theme song sung at the end of every performance, no matter where it was, on stage, on television, or on a USO tour in Viet Nam in the ‘60s. A comedian, actor, singer, dancer and famous emcee of the Academy Awards, Hope died at the age of 100 in 2003. Having led a truly rich and full life, he no doubt had plenty of memories to be thankful for.
As we get older, memories seem to dominate our gratitude list at Thanksgiving. I know they do mine. Sure, we’re thankful for our health and our families and our friends, even our bank accounts and personal successes, but with decades of experience behind us we begin to see more than just particular blessings. Age brings with it the ability to take “the long view,” to see how the patterns of our lives have brought us to who and where we are and, yes, even to appreciate the enlightening gifts of tragedy and loss along the way.
When I was a kid growing up in South Texas, Thanksgiving wasn’t an especially big deal. First of all, my family was just the three of us in our house, my Mother, my Grandmother and I, and so we hardly mirrored a Norman Rockwell painting. We had no other relatives nearby, so we never traveled to see them or had a groaning-board of food surrounded by hoards of diners. Also, my Mother worked in retail (at J.C. Penney, so you know what that meant!); back then when department stores were open later hours during the holidays but before they were open on the holiday itself, she felt lucky just to have Thanksgiving Day off. No matter how late she had gotten home the night before, she would still get up at daybreak to put the turkey in the oven, (why did our mothers all do that???). We would spend the morning not watching the turkey, but watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. By noon, the turkey was beyond done, but the pies, usually chocolate and lemon meringue, were destined to be the stars of the show anyway. My Mother, bless her, was not much of a cook, but she was an avid baker.
A few years later after I married and moved to New York, I was suddenly faced with more relatives, and more command appearances, than I knew what to do with. My Father, who was originally from New Jersey, had been one of six siblings, and my husband’s Mother, originally from Brooklyn, was also one of six. You can just imagine how many aunts, uncles, cousins, children, and significant others made up these families and traditions.
As newlyweds, we lived in New York City. Since all my husband’s relatives were on Long Island, Thanksgiving meant schlepping out to Nassau County for Thanksgiving dinner, in what is even today crippling, gridlock-inching traffic on the Long Island Expressway. No matter how well we planned or how early we left, we usually arrived just before dessert, to my mother-in-law’s eternal chagrin. Of course, we never got to watch the Macy’s parade on television, much less actually go into Manhattan to see it. The brutal introduction to traffic congestion in the Northeast is perhaps my most vivid memory of those early Thanksgiving holidays.
That, and the food. On the rare occasion that we actually arrived in time for dinner, I also faced a totally unexpected, and often un-recognizable, menu: pickled herring, creamed onions, sausage dressing that could have been mortar for a stonemason, mashed potatoes with turnips, and yes, another over-cooked turkey. The star desert was mincemeat pie! Lots of people, loud kids, tables extended into other rooms to accommodate everyone — it all seemed to me to be as crowded and chaotic as the traffic on the Expressway.
We moved to another state for five years and, when we returned East with our small son, it somehow became our turn to host family get-togethers. We had lost some of the older patriarchs and matriarchs by that time, and since we lived in a house in Connecticut and had the room, we took on holidays. Naturally, everyone brought something for Thanksgiving — even the creamed onions and the pickled herring. However, I had become something of a cook myself by then, and so I integrated my cornbread dressing and Gulf shrimp platters and mashed potatoes without the turnips into the traditional menu. Our gatherings were still as loud and chaotic as ever, but by then I loved these people and enjoyed them all. Even with all the clutter of dishes, complaints about the traffic, and bouts of bad weather, we made our own version of a Rockwell poster.
But Thanksgiving dinner was work — a lot of work. I was teaching, our son was in school, and our holiday break only began at noon on Wednesday. Time passed, family members relocated elsewhere or moved to Florida, and the three of us began regularly celebrating holidays with friends. Of course, we still fought the traffic. For several years, we went up to a shared condominium in Sugar Bush, VT. where everyone brought dishes for the dinner. But the drive, about 8 hours often in snow and ice, became arduous — and we weren’t even skiers.
Next we began to join friends who owned a house on Cape Cod. I-95 could still be a beast if you didn’t time it right, but our friends were also teachers and they knew the driving tips and shortcuts. The first year we did that, we stayed at The Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham. Cape Cod at Thanksgiving became our “family tradition” for years, enduring long after our friends no longer had a home there. We three even spent the last Thanksgiving in 2019 at The Chatham Bars before the Covid pandemic. Maybe it wasn’t exactly our own Rockwell portrait, but we certainly inserted ourselves into one. There is simply nothing like New England at Thanksgiving.
Now, three years later, it’s back to just the three of us around the dining table here in Texas, my husband, our son, and I. My Mother passed away in 2018, actually over the Thanksgiving weekend, which has left me with a lingering memory of a different sort, but I try to remember the joy and the laughter and the love, and even the grumpiness, I experienced through all those Thanksgivings over all the years. I try to say “thanks for the memories.”
And I don’t cook. I purchase the entire dinner from a specialty market because whether you’re cooking for three or thirty, a holiday dinner is still a lot of work.