The holidays are approaching and there have been a lot of changes in my life. I have been thinking about how different things are now and am taking notice of the changes in my family and of those around me. My family has always been steeped in traditions created by my mother mostly. We celebrated Thanksgiving together with our favorite family recipes. My mother, together with my sister and me, made each recipe. We had the sweet potato casserole with a layer of marshmallows on top, the string beans with the crunchy onions, and a special cranberry-pear crumble. Of course, we had the traditional turkey, gravy and stuffing, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls and pumpkin pie. We always had apple pie too, because that was my dad’s favorite.
When my father died and my mother moved in with my family, we continued our traditions. My daughters began cooking with my mother and she taught them how to make the recipes we loved so much. Each daughter made one her specialty. It was a time of the crowded, joyous kitchen filled with laughter and tables of family and friends expressing gratitude and love for each other. These traditions are embedded in my daughters, although my mother is no longer with us and we are now living in various cities. We started celebrating with extended family and bringing our homemade recipes to the potluck style get-together. We enjoyed this new family configuration that was bigger and filled with cousins we don’t get to see often, but enjoy so much.
Now we are even more spread out and sometimes traveling is challenging. It isn’t always possible for everyone to join the celebration. We have downsized and are living in smaller homes that make large gatherings a little more difficult. We still crave the closeness of family, but life has changed.
Now I find myself thinking about what family means and how the holidays will feel this year. I find friends to be an important part of my life and look around to see others who have improvised families or new holiday traditions, many living far from their families in different states and sometimes in different countries.
Holidays are about togetherness, but the Norman Rockwell image of Thanksgiving with its perfect family composition and traditional table doesn’t necessarily look the same today. It’s nice to share a communal meal with people we care about and it’s important to remember to express gratitude for what and whom we have in our lives. We can remember the traditions and the delicious recipes and reflect on Thanksgivings we shared with those no longer here with us. We can establish some new traditions and perhaps some changes are only temporary with rotating locations and changing groups of people.
Family, traditionally, is made up of people who are related, or live in the same household, but there are also chosen families made up of people we choose to have in the close inner circle of our lives, those who have been there for us during both happy and difficult times. We can count on these people at 3 a.m., when we call in shock or when we need a ride at the last minute. We are surrounded by their love and nourished by their friendship. They feel like family. These are people we want at our table.
Family is made up of those we bring into our family either by marriage or friendship. Families grow and expand, enriching our lives with their own customs, traditions and recipes and we are lucky. As our families change—get smaller or expand—
we have the opportunity to evaluate our own position in the family. How can we unify this group, welcome new members in, make current members feel secure? How can we nurture and develop these new relationships and give everyone a place?
Families require flexibility. Perhaps it’s always been this way, but it seems more pronounced, more necessary now. The first step is realizing that, in the words of Dorothy, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We live in a world that is very different from the one we grew up in if we are in our 20s, 30s, 40s and especially if we are older, some things are unexpected; different from the way we thought they would be. We don’t all live in our home towns with extended family nearby. We aren’t necessarily married, or happily married and relationships can take many different forms. Some of us have grown children with children of their own but not all of us have grandchildren nearby. We have to learn to adapt to whatever our life looks like, settle into the moment and find joy.
I am grateful for moments of joy. This year is my chance to model flexibility and to share the feelings and traditions of Thanksgiving with those in this year’s family. I am grateful that I have people to celebrate with, things to be thankful for and a chance to make the delicious recipes I love that evoke memories of the many different Thanksgiving holidays I have enjoyed over the years.