My Prayer Of Thanks For Family Of Friends

When I was a kid, it was my favorite holiday of the year.

There were no presents, but then there was no potential for disappointment. There was no picnic or barbecue, but the day could never be spoiled by rain. There were no candy bunnies and Easter baskets, but we weren’t forced to spend the morning squeezed stiffly into crowded church pews.

In my household, and probably in yours, Thanksgiving was about two things - family and food … and both in abundance.

The day would start early - the night before, really, when my mother and aunts would begin preparations for the family feast. Come morning, I’d be roused from sleep by the smell of corn bread baking and turkey roasting and the sound of the electric beaters banging the side of the metal mixing bowl.

By noon, every burner on the stove was humming and the kitchen counters were covered with the remnants of chopped onions, bread crumbs and grated cheese. A few hours later the stream of relatives would begin to arrive, each toting specialties, from Aunt Ora’s three-bean salad to Aunt Lottie’s macaroni and cheese.

It was the Daniel clan, my mother’s side of the family, we gathered with each Thanksgiving - her three younger sisters and the older brother they’d followed from Alabama to Ohio in the 1940s. With the assortment of cousins, aunts and uncles, our six-member family grew to two dozen for the holiday.

It has been 25 years since I spent that kind of Thanksgiving Day at home, but I can still remember the way the dining room smelled, the scent of roasted turkey and hot rolls and sweet potato pie mingling with my Aunt Al’s perfume and the smell of whiskey on my Uncle Earl’s breath.

And I can hear Uncle Charles as he delivered the grace, his “Heavenly Father …” rising to quiet the din and remind us - in a prayer that, as a child, seemed to last forever - that the day was about more than how much time was spent cooking and how much turkey we could consume.

There’s a sense of melancholy attendant to Thanksgiving for me now - in my grown-up incarnation, thousands of miles away from the people I call family and the place I still consider home.

I can’t reconcile the holiday I remember - the raucous children running up and down stairs, grown men yelling at the television screen, wives and sisters howling with laughter at stories shared around the kitchen table - with the sedate gatherings of my small, nuclear family today.

Sometimes it seems pointless even to try. Why spend the day slaving over turkey and fixings for children who want nothing more than a bowl of spaghetti and a chance to eat in the TV room and catch those Nickelodeon shows they miss most Thursdays when they are in school?

Some years I’ve persuaded my sister or brother to fly out and celebrate with us; other times I’ve invited friends who are similarly dispossessed. Once we flew to Alabama for a family reunion, and my children got a taste of the family-filled Thanksgivings I recall.

And once we wound up eating alone in a deserted Sizzler, because the wait at the upscale restaurant next door was too long to accommodate us - a mother who had refused to cook, three fidgety little kids and a dad trying to make it back home in time for the football kickoff on TV.

So, over the years, I mostly gave up and tried to pretend that Thanksgiving was little more than the launch of the “real” holiday season to come - a day or two off from school and work, a chance to haul down the decorations from the garage and hang the Christmas lights outside.

At some point the holiday seemed to become not a day of giving thanks, but an annual reminder of all the differences between the life I’d planned and the life I had, a day that forced me to account for my failure to provide for my children the kind of foundation my family’s closeness had laid for me.

This year promises a family Thanksgiving again. It’s not my family this time, but a family that has taken us in these past couple years - much like the Indians took in the Pilgrims - and given us a lesson in holiday blessings.

This family’s daughter and mine had been classmates and friends for years, but when Kimber first invited us to her family’s holiday dinner - with her parents, three brothers and their families - I balked, then accepted because I was desperate not to spend Thanksgiving alone.

The notion felt awkward and odd - glomming onto the traditions of a family we hardly knew. But I baked an apple pie, gussied up my girls and headed out, hoping that if they considered us intruders in their midst, at least they would be too polite to say.

And what I found warmed my heart: The kids ate at a card table, picking over their food, then ran wild through the house and in the back yard. The men retired to the living room, watched TV and talked about football, computers and real estate. We women shared laughs in the kitchen, clearing plates and telling stories about our kids.

And the love that family shared stretched out to encompass the strangers in their midst.

When we gathered in the kitchen before dinner for grace, and I glimpsed my children holding tight to the hands of people who’d been strangers an hour before, I hoped their whispered prayers of Thanksgiving echoed mine.

I knew then what I had to be thankful for. And I knew that this was one Thanksgiving blessing that could never have been felt at home.

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