Like most families, mine had a Thanksgiving tradition we kept up until I began college. For my entire childhood I remember it like this: Our Wednesday nights were spent driving, trekking across Ohio and into Pennsylvania until we reached my grandparents’ farm house near the town of Ligonier. When we arrived hugs were passed around before the adults would adjourn to the family room to have beers and begin the conversations about the weather, jobs, sports, and whatever else adults talked about. Meanwhile, the cousins would collect in the living room and catch up on our lives while munching on homemade bread lathered with homemade apple butter. Outside it was pitch black, the late autumn skies cold and starless.
When we were children, there would be excitement over getting to spend three days in the country with acres of forest around us. There were tractor rides, hikes in the woods, trips into town and the annual Turkey bowl, a football game between the cousins that usually ended with more bruises than touchdowns. If we were lucky, the year’s first snowfall would come sometime during Thanksgiving Day. When we were teenagers, there was less excitement. We cousins acted put out by having to drive out to see our old grandparents while there was school and extracurricular activities and the opposite sex to think about. Still, by middle of the day, Thanksgiving, everyone would settle into their old routines, which meant I was the brunt of many practical jokes, no matter how many touchdowns I scored or tackles I made in the Turkey Bowl.
My senior year of high school was the final Thanksgiving I remember out there in Pennsylvania with my mother’s family. My brother and sister, the oldest of the cousins, had moved out of the house, making it more difficult for them to join the family. At the same time, my grandmother was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. If I’d known it would be the last time I would have appreciated it more. But I was thinking about my car that was just sent to the scrap heap and worrying about some paper I had botched in AP English. Thanksgivings were never the same.
When Julie and I got married, I imagined having our own Thanksgivings and creating our own traditions with a family of our own. Of course, I didn’t know how we would achieve this goal living thousands of miles away from her family and most of my relatives, but I was optimistic. The moment Jules and I set foot on California soil we were welcomed with open arms by my sister-in-law, Karyn, her two sisters and their families, along with their firecracker of a mother, Kathy. In fact, the first time I met Kathy she said to me, ”You’re family now,” even though I she barely knew me as Budd’s brother and Julie was a complete stranger. This remarkable gesture placed us at ease and made the transition of moving from Ohio to Los Angeles a little easier.
For 15 years we have had Thanksgiving with the sisters and their families and we have always been treated like one of their own. For many years the holiday was held at Kathy’s house, which would come alive with the sounds of kids running around laughing and screaming while the adults converged in the kitchen and backyard to drink beers and talk about jobs, weather, sports and whatever it is we adults talk about.
Kathy passed away in 2005 after a valiant battle with cancer. I was deeply affected by her passing as she really did treat us like her kids and loved and cared about Sophie and Jacob dearly. I still miss her and whenever I hear ”We’ll Be Together Again” from Rod Stewart’s first Songbook CD, I can hear her raving about how great it is. At the time I hated the song, but held my tongue in ridiculing the music. Funny how a song can take on new meaning when you associate it with someone you loved. When they’re no longer with you to share the music it becomes more special. Or perhaps they are still present and that’s what makes the music more vital.
Each year when our families gather, I’m amazed that the kind of tradition I hoped for fifteen years ago has come true. I hope that Sophie and Jacob and their cousins someday appreciate the traditions we tried to create for them, especially on Thanksgiving Day. In another fifteen or twenty years, when our kids have moved out of the house and possibly started their own families, I hope that they’ll be able to create their own traditions, ones that include coming home at the end of each November for a home cooked meal and the love and support families provide.