Family Traditions: One Family’s Intergenerational Thanksgiving Customs

Family Traditions: A Thankful Daughter on Continuing Family Customs
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Family Traditions: One Family’s Intergenerational Thanksgiving Customs

Lifting a turkey is a big event,” my mother admits. She accepted the responsibility of hosting Thanksgiving this year, a holiday she owned every year since I was a child. Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. My older cousins made their pilgrimage from upstate New York to stay with us for the long weekend. Our family came together from all corners of Long Island to honor a day celebrating gluttony and our country’s complicated colonial history.

Like good Americans, in the kitchen we trust. In the wee morning hours, during the “ugly phase” of the holiday preparation, the ritual dressing of the bird took center stage. “18 pounds of pure poultry,” my mother announced in her annual impersonation of Julia Child, your French chef. As the years went by, the size of the bird ebbed and flowed with the loss and gain of family. In recent years, with the expansion of our modern family to include step-brothers, in-laws, and 10 grandchildren, the invite list hovers around 30.

After raising her hand to host in a family group text, I messaged my mother separately to assure her that I was up to the task if she decided she wasn’t, even the day before. Since moving to suburbia four years ago, I’ve stepped up to bring family together when she could not.

My mother is a caretaker. In the 20 years since my stepfather’s Parkinsons diagnosis, my mother’s capacity to find joy in the manual labor of the holidays waned. “I feel like I have reached a point in my life where I recognize that, mentally and physically, I cannot do what I used to do. My husband is ill. I find myself anxious at the thought of a big event,” she acknowledged. In the irreverent, dark humor we share, she declares, “I pass the torch. The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.”

When I mention my 30 person holiday guest list, people are shocked by my appetite to take on extra work while raising two young boys. Yes, the torch comes with domestic responsibility, but with great responsibility comes great purpose. Like my mother, I feel the magic in bringing family together for joy. It is important to me to bring familiar faces and flavors to my table in the name of tradition and kinship. It is important to me to provide a forum for cousins to come together for mischief and forward momentum. If their relationships fade, so too do the ties that connect our people for generations to come.

Someday, when I’ve passed the torch to my children and theirs, I hope they’ll draw from the menu of family recipes that filled our bellies and hearts in the warmest moments of a calendar year: Cousin Dineen’s kugel; my late Aunt Debbie’s carrot soufflé; my mother’s turkey. These are the flavors that bind.

Everyone does their part to keep the party alive. As a spectator, my mother is happy to bring whatever she can to ease the pain of hosting the holidays. She delights in making her signature dishes the family craves without the stress of planning and cleaning. In corners of my basement, I squirrel away folding tables and chairs. I Pinterest compostable tablescapes because I cannot sacrifice style or sustainability, while prioritizing ease in executing a celebration for 30. My family comes with food in hand, rolling up their sleeves to clean a platter and unclog the drain. The holidays teach me that I am not alone in this.

In the wake of Covid isolation, I am a conduit for connection. After years of uncomfortable distance, we are all making up for lost time. In this season of my life, I find purpose in bringing people together. As my Millennial generation grows into middle adulthood, our Boomer parents move into their golden years. This holiday season, many of us are grappling with the weight of the torch we’ve inherited. As a family leader, sandwiched between young children and aging parents, I urge you to rise to the occasion. Fight through the host anxiety, culinary pressure and cleaning exhaustion for the important milestones of the year. Let people bring food and pull up their sleeves in the kitchen. Use paper plates. Ask for help and watch relationships grow through the shared creation of this beautiful moment. When the dishes are cleared, the leftovers stored, and the grandchildren are taking apart your couch to erect a fort, sit back with your wine and know that you too are building something. Feel gratitude and connection to the generations of family that roasted the turkeys that brought all of you to this day. Know that someday, when the pounds of pure poultry become too great for you to carry, you will lean on the foundation you and generations of others established to keep the family flame ablaze.