I love Thanksgiving. It is so quiet it is almost sacred, I swear.
The turkey is thawing and the pies are in the oven. The tablecloth and napkins are ironed. And I have settled down to read a beautifully-written novel, Elizabeth Berridge’s Rose Under Glass (1961), the story of Penelope Hinton, a widow in London, her friendship with a launderette mogul, and a friend’s son who uproots his family from the country to start a publishing company with another ambitious young man.
Reading on Thanksgiving is a luxury, but it is the last peace before the Bacchic frenzy of Merry Capitalism begins. A few years ago I cried after we set up the Christmas tree. Very silly, but I dreaded the exchange of extravagant, meaningless presents: that year I didn’t bother to wrap the gifts. And so we established a new tradition of going to a bookstore and each picking out one book. It has been a relief for us.
Thanksgiving can be magically quiet, but it is not for everybody. Somehow holidays are difficult for childless couples and other outsiders. We are not the stars of the Rockwell paintings; we are the peripheral aunts and uncles. We may feel we have more in common with spinsters than mothers or grandmothers. Perhaps I am Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe or Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, even though I am married. And so we learn, like the designated superfluous women we are, to design our own holiday rites.
Our culture has trouble integrating those who do not fit the ideal niches of family life. It felt like this in the ’80s; it feels like this now, even though the number of childless women has increased since my youth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, in 2014, 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 had never had children, up from 46.5 percent in 2012. Another study says that only 6% of these women are childless by choice. I wonder how many of us are ambivalent.
Nonetheless, we have had happy Thanksgivings. The history of the Baby Boomers’ Thanksgivings might look a lot like ours.
The 1960s: prime time for the nuclear family. My mother never learned to cook, so my grandmother did all the holiday cooking: turkey, stuffing, ham, three kinds of potatoes, three-bean salad, homemade noodles and rolls, Jell-O, dressing, cookies and pies. She phoned us when it was ready. We piled into the car and drive the mile to her house, though we could have walked. So quaint! Close families were literally close! The men watched football, the women talked and babysat. Everybody took home leftovers. Most of us have since scattered to different parts of the country, so this holiday cannot be duplicated.
The early 1970s: The nuclear family broke up. At least mine did. So did millions of others. And so one was expected to attend two Thanksgiving dinners: one with Mom and one with Dad. One year I dutifully ate turkey in a tiny hick town with my dad, his new wife, and his new stepchildren. What I remember most vividly: a boy drove a tractor past the house over and over to signal his love for one of the girls. OH MY GOD IT WAS SO EMBARRASSING, I COULDN’T WAIT TO GET OUT OF THERE.
The late 1970s: We were students. One year my boyfriend (now husband) and I cooked turkey legs in the kitchen of the house where I rented a room and then went out for pie. Another year we ate with fellow grad students at a Thanksgiving Buffet in the faculty dining room of the Student Union.
The 1980s: Doing good. We volunteered at a church’s free Thanksgiving dinner. What we learned: people are desperate, poor, mentally ill, and homeless, and the services and shelters are inadequate. The churches have too many volunteers on holidays and too few the rest of the year. (And we learned we are better at giving money than mashing potatoes.)
The 1990s: Physical fitness. You wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be a jogger. I ran a 10K or two. The year I ran the Turkey Trot half-marathon, I got sick. My husband, a runner, also puked. He said it was part of athleticism. Not for me, thank you!
The millennium: A geographical shift. We moved back to the Midwest and spent Thanksgiving with parents, aunts, and cousins, who taught me how to order meals from Harry & David or the Hy-Vee! My husband sentimentally thinks my home-cooked meal is better. It is not.
The Twentytens: I MISS MY MOM, who died in 2013. Our traditional holiday celebrations have ceased with her death. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our turkey dinner with cousins or friends. We can and do. But my mother’s generation created our first Thanksgivings.