Today’s a different sort of holiday, with me still in surgery recovery mode and Harold and I both down with horrible colds. Our kids both had other plans this year so we’d made reservations for a nice dinner out, plans that got canceled due to our contagious nature. There’s not a cranberry or homemade yeast roll to be found in this house so we’ll make do with leftover turkey from Monday’s Friendsgiving feast and give thanks for a few potatoes to mash in memory of other more festive meals. This year, we are mostly giving thanks for the forced few days of rest ahead of us. C’est la vie!
This does leave me nostalgic for holidays past as I thought through decades of my life and the people with whom I’ve celebrated. When I was ten, we moved to Indiana where dad became a full-time minister and we lived in the 70s tri-level “preacher’s house” owned by the church. The avocado green shag carpet was… memorable… along with the large dining room set mom bought new that year. Solid wood and heavy as lead, the table seated eight and the buffet cabinet held her favorite collection of dishes – not the everyday Corelle we used in the kitchen, but the blue and white Americana set she earned through green stamps (I think). Mom loved to entertain and nowhere was this more evident than at Thanksgiving when every side dish had its own serving piece and every pie was made from scratch.
I remember this particular holiday because moving back to Indiana had brought us closer to both sets of grandparents. My mom and dad both grew up in a small town about an hour from Indianapolis, and most of their extended family still lived there. So at least on this one occasion, all four grandparents drove to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. Our Indiana menu included a roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, green bean casserole, and homemade noodles which took a couple days’ advance prep before the actual holiday. The noodles stood in for gravy at our house and were poured liberally over any item of choice. The dinner rolls were made from scratch, as was the cranberry sauce. Mom regularly tried new recipes for a cranberry side dish (Cranberry Orange Relish? Check. Cranberry Fluff? Check. Cranberry Jello Mold? Check.) but always included the whole-berry sauce on the side. There were always at least two if not three pies, and often an alternate dessert, some variation of a pumpkin bar or sheet cake. Two menu items were carried over from our five years of living in the south – pecan pie and sweet tea. It’s no wonder dad ended up with diabetes in his later years.
A decade later, mom would discover the benefits of Reames frozen egg noodles, frozen bread dough for rolls, and Pillsbury pie crust. She was a working woman, after all. She never wanted to relinquish much control in the kitchen though. While she solicited our help (okay – mostly mine #genderroles), she had exacting standards and didn’t relegate any of the “important” jobs to me or anyone else. That was okay by me because I could peel potatoes while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, or stir together the ingredients for green bean casserole without taking any creative license. I do remember that for the McKamey family, holiday meals meant noon sharp (not dinner) and that meant VERY early morning turkey prep. When I would drive home from college and arrive at midnight or later on Thanksgiving “day,” I would often wake up at 5 a.m. to the sounds of mom pulling out the large roasting pan in order to begin the process. The size of our guest list impacted the size of the turkey, and so, of course, impacted the hour at which the process began.
After I had my own family, we hosted many times. My home economics degree notwithstanding, I don’t believe I ever made a homemade pie crust, and at least twice, I roasted the turkey with the bag of giblets left intact inside the cavity. But I inherited my mom’s love of entertaining and enjoyed planning the (similar) menu and decorating the table for company. At least once, we hosted my Mamaw (mom’s mom) and Uncle Eddie (mom’s brother). Eddie’s wife was traveling in New York with one of their sons who was in the Macy’s parade that year. I remember while we waited for lunch to be ready, Mamaw had a bowl of turkey noodle broth with some potato chips crumbled into it. Another year we hosted both my parents and Harold’s (a throwback reminder of the Indiana holiday shared above) and Harold’s mom introduced us to Sweet Potato Casserole (with pecans and brown sugar on top). It was a great improvement over the “yams with marshmallows” I’d seen in southern contexts and became one of our own menu traditions for a season.
I have some great memories of hosting after our kids were grown, too. One year at Thanksgiving, Michael was helping with breakfast prep in the kitchen and shared the news that he planned to propose to Autumn on her upcoming birthday. The first year after they were married, we hosted at our Irvington house, a 100-year-old four square with hardwood floors, pocket doors, and built-in cabinets in the formal dining room. I don’t remember much about the menu (because honestly, it was probably pretty much the same as always), but I do remember how much fun we had with a family photoshoot decorating our Christmas tree. A few years later, we also hosted at our campus apartment after moving to Tennessee for seminary, and we loved introducing them to Johnson City and our mountain views.
There were also some great memories of Thanksgiving hosted by others. We traveled to Harold’s brother’s house one year and offered to bring a “second” small turkey (Dan was smoking a turkey). When we got there, we waited a couple of hours to eat because the smoked turkey STILL wasn’t done, and so…YAY for that second turkey! So much for hoping for leftovers. One year, a last-minute change of plans saw us land at my parents’ house along with one of my nieces and we played carom and cards after feasting all day. Another year after Harold’s mom passed, his sister (a nutritionist) invited us and Liz and Ian joined us. We enjoyed a “Whole Foods” Thanksgiving feast at their home in the country after a brisk walk outside watching the horses graze in the not-yet frozen field.
Speaking of Liz and Ian, we also remember fondly the year Michael and Autumn hosted in Madison, WI, with one-month-old Isla our most recent addition to the family. That was three months after Liz and Ian started dating so it was our first time to meet the professional baker. He was welcomed immediately, not only because of his contributed loaf of homemade sourdough but also because of his love for dark meat (Autumn had roasted turkey legs that year.)
My most recent three years of Thanksgiving are certainly memorable. November of 2018 was the first month we’d been in our Omaha house and all the kids came to visit. The weather cooperated for a morning at the playground and we cooked and ate together the rest of the day. Having a baker in the family meant I could delegate the pies (both apple and bourbon pecan, if I remember correctly), and Autumn created some amazing side dishes as well. Four-year-old Sawyer and two-year-old Isla had their introduction to “day after Thanksgiving” Christmas decorating, and we had a wonderful time.
In 2019, Isla was deep into cancer treatments but thankfully was able to be home for the holidays, so we joined them in Wisconsin for a couple of days. One of my favorite memories from that weekend was actually my birthday. While Isla and Sawyer were in the basement with me reading a book, Michael comes down the stairs singing Happy Birthday with a candle stuck in the traditional… hummus plate? I mean, new traditions can start every year, right? That year was also our first without my dad who had passed the week before. After a short visit in Milwaukee, we drove to Indiana for his funeral on Saturday…the precursor of three we’d experience in the next difficult year.
Losing both Isla and my mom in 2020 made this holiday especially hard. Thanksgiving was back in Omaha, again with all our kids, but no Isla. New traditions we’d begun in 2018 were revisited with Sawyer and his new brother, one-year-old Ellis. The weekend was bittersweet, with memories and tears intermingled with laughter and delight at the grandboys enjoying the Christmas tree, decorated overnight as a surprise after Thanksgiving dinner and bedtime. We also enjoyed a new tradition, the Werner Park Christmas Lights drive-through display. When the songs from Frozen played, we shared some tears and sweet memories of Isla who sang “Let it Go” and “Into the Unknown” with enthusiasm and abandon. She would have loved that light display.
This brings me back to 2021 and our current state of affairs. While not our traditional Thanksgiving holiday, we remain grateful for the family traditions and friend relationships that have carried us through the last several years. I’m getting old enough to reflect along with George Bailey, “I really have had a wonderful life.” I hope that whatever’s on the menu and whoever surrounds your table, you are able to give thanks as well.