November 2020. With a pandemic wreaking havoc on normal life, this is a good year to have the tradition of not having traditions.
I grew up in a family short on grocery money and even shorter on relatives. My mom was an only child and my dad and his siblings drifted apart after a squabble about an inheritance or something along those lines. I don’t think they were the sort to fuss about holidays anyway. A few years ago, I found one of my dad’s childhood journals, started during the Great Depression. No mention of Thanksgiving. Christmas Day was spent resting and fiddling around with his tools, making an end piece on a cabinet for his mother. Dinner meant extra portions of stew. But no gifts … and noted disappointment in Dad’s scrawled remarks … “Phooey! No presents.”
During my childhood, holidays meant just us … mom, dad, my grandmother, and us four kids … a mildly dysfunctional family who wasn’t into church (not during those years, anyway), football, or big gatherings. For us the day was largely about eating.
The success of the intended goal … eating … fell to Mom and Grandma, who collaborated for weeks prior over what dishes would make it to the table that year. An oven roasted turkey, cooked in one of those new fangled “plastic” baking bags … always … at Thanksgiving. Grandma’s sweet potatoes with perfectly toasted marshmallows on top (surely that recipe alone contained a lethal amount of sugar). A lime Jello® and 7-up® salad. Pecan pie … Mom called it Washington Nut Pie. Whole AND jellied cranberries so that nobody could complain. Store-bought potato rolls. And … olives … black olives.
This was the one day in which my younger brother and I, who were usually red-alert-annoyed with each other, would sneak into the kitchen and snitch olives. Mom turned a blind eye as we loaded our fingers and thumbs with the dripping black blobs and then raced to see who could eat theirs the fastest without choking.
The menu of my childhood was traditional, but that was about it. We might pull out Monopoly or play Kings in the Corner like our neighbor had taught us, but it usually resulted in a squabble, so didn’t last long. We weren’t the family that sat and watched the Macy’s parade (not with much interest any way), gathered with others to play touch football, went on a hike, went to a church service, or anything like that. I knew families who couldn’t wait for the yearly gathering to play killer games of Spoons or who drove to “town” to watch the latest movie. (We went to one movie in my childhood … a drive in showing of Cinderella when I was six.)
We just weren’t traditional in any of these ways. We had hard working, practical parents who saw this as a day of rest (well … only for Mom, in that she made us kids do the dishes after all that cooking).
We ate … we rested … and we talked … listening to Grandma’s stories and witty puns … none of which I can recall … I just know that she always had us rolling with her unexpected dry humor … she was otherwise a little on the mousy side. Sometimes Dad would surprise us with a story about the animals he had as a kid and other childhood stories.
I liked hearing about the mule they had. “Jack Ass,” my mom would smile. “Your Dad was named after him.”
“Hey, now,” Dad … Jack … didn’t let her get away with the joke. “I was born first. The mule was named after me.”
“Is that any better?!”
I loved it when they teased like this.
Then … we ate … again. Mom and Dad said nothing if we went back for a second or even third piece of pumpkin or pecan pie. By the time bedtime showed on the clock, the lone pie left on the counter was mincemeat with only the tiniest slivers missing. No one wanted to hurt Grandma’s feelings, but she never seemed to get the message about that mincemeat.
By the time I got married I was thrilled with the idea that Thanksgiving and fresh traditions were wide open territory. My Guy and I could make it whatever we wanted it to be. However, once I discovered that he lacked fondness for Mom’s 7-UP® salad and that I was never going to live up to his mother’s version of sweet potato casserole, I knew we needed to set an entirely new course.
The problem for me was figuring out what traditions we should adapt … while My Guy can eat the same foods over and over … why mess up a sure bet, he always says … I am the great experimenter when it comes to holidays.
Our turkeys over the year have come to the table via being roasted in a brown paper bag, smoked on the grill (never make gravy from this method!), soaked in apple cider brine, simply roasted with butter and stuffed with gloves of garlic, stuffed with stuffing, sans stuffing … pretty much whatever method was popular in the latest “home living” magazine I’d come across. (These days it’s Pinterest.)
We’ve had green salads garnished with cranberries and apples as an appetizer. One year we warmed up our appetites with pumpkin soup cooked in the pumpkin shell itself. (My Guy wasn’t a fan … so that remained a one hit wonder.)
Desserts have ranged from pecan pies, Costco’s pumpkin pies (why fight it when they do it better than me), pumpkin cheese cake, apple crisps, chocolate … lots of chocolate.
Relish trays and sausage rolls (introduced to us by a friend).
Candy turkeys made from candy corn, round crackers, and chocolate kisses. Apparently THESE ARE a tradition. I saw them in one of those many magazines and gave them a try when our kids were small. We made the sticky creatures several years running … frosting everywhere … always scrounging to find candy corn after Halloween. (Quick Stops at gas stations. THEY always have them!) Then, when the girls were in high school, I decided to save some money (these little treats get spendy) and didn’t gather up the supplies.
“Wait …,” one of the girls said. “You mean we aren’t doing turkeys this year?”
“I figured you guys were too old to want to make them.”
“But, Mom … they’re tradition.”
Okay … we have one stayed tradition.
It’s not the food.
It’s the people and the memories.
And … again … there’s been nothing traditional.
Some years we entertained a household of nearly strangers … anyone who didn’t have home to go to.
Sometimes it was extended family … other years … many years … we traveled to where we live now … to visit my mom … and ate at the local restaurant who put on a magnificent yearly feast. (Sadly, that ended this year … with COVID restrictions ringing a death knell to this 14 year old business).
The last two years, our holiday has whittled down to just immediate family … a big deal having the girls come from far away … we wanted to soak up all that the time with them that we can.
I often dreamed of us having a traditional activity. We almost got there when, several years running, I made us walk the Narrows Bridge in Tacoma when we lived on the West side of the state. Turkey in the oven, we headed out to cold air and beautiful views … and lots of complaining. My Guy did most of it!
“Do we really have to do this?”
“We’ll only go half way and turn back.”
My Guy held me to it but the girls ran ahead completing the whole mile each way. The next year though, they brought friends. After that, it got harder to coordinate dinner and schedules.
Last year was the last one we had with Mom … she didn’t actually make it to Thanksgiving dinner … turned out to be one of her hard days. Dementia does that to a person. BUT, she had one of her amazing good days earlier in that we and insisted on coming to help make pies. So … so thankful we got that day.
Tomorrow … it’ll be just My Guy and me. And probably some FaceTime with the kids … we’re trying to figure out a way to do a virtual version of some of our favorite board games. If it’s a fail, there’s always Charades.
This year the turkey will be a re-heated turkey breast from Costco. All the candy turkey makings are in the house but so far the caramels and candy corn are sitting untouched. We had visions of making them and taking some to neighbors who didn’t go anywhere this year. We’ll see if our good intentions make it out of the bag(s).
Besides the candy turkeys, I realize that there is one tradition that found its way to us since the first year of marriage. Taking time to let each person voice something they’re thankful for. (We learned to do this while we’re eating, instead of before … we got a lot more out of hungry teens that way.)
Some years were awkward for sure … the kids especially felt put on the spot even though they knew what was coming. Sometimes it felt forced and a little superficial. But the words that have been said have stuck with me. We’ve been given so much. And even in years like this when so much has been taken, there are still bright spots. The sadness of change and the loss of my mom and other extended family weigh on me a bit … yet I find peace in reflecting on what they have each meant to us.
It’s a weird one … 2020 … but I’m sure we’ll look back and decide that this chapter of our long book on non-traditional traditions wasn’t half bad.
Hope yours wasn’t half bad too.