My fondest Thanksgiving memory is of an occasion at which I was not present. The time was the Second World War. The setting was the dining room in the principal dwelling of a distant branch of the family. The festivities were presided over by a formidable gentleman who was regarded, evidently by all who knew him, with deference and awe. I am told that when I was a very small boy I was once introduced to this daunting presence, but I do not remember the encounter; for some reason I picture him with mutton chops and the physique of a walrus, though this no doubt is mere invention and utterly unrelated to historical fact.
In any event, at this particular Thanksgiving this particular branch of the family chose, for whatever reason, to serve a standing roast of beef rather than the traditional turkey. All the family was gathered 'round the groaning board. There were toasts, I feel sure, to an Allied victory and a bounteous harvest and the good health of all in attendance. Hopes for this last were quickly dashed. Swallowing too hastily a mouthful of insufficiently masticated beef, my great-uncle several times removed -- for this apparently is what the gentleman was -- suddenly found himself gasping for air. This, alas, was a time long before the perfection of the Heimlich maneuver. As those nearest and dearest to him looked on in horror, the distinguished old party gagged, groaned, and after a moment passed with some melodrama into the great boardroom in the sky.
This calamity, of course, instantly became family legend: a macabre joke, repeated and embroidered with numbing regularity at the merest mention of Thanksgiving or roast beef or both, and a cautionary tale -- "Chew your meat, Johnny. Remember what happened to Uncle Gray!" It is a story I have always treasured, both as a bizarre reminder of the singularity of families -- our shared recollection of the story, after all, is one of the ways we define ourselves as members of this family -- and as a reminder, too, of those days in which the generations gathered around the Thanksgiving table with more regularity and in greater numbers than they do now.
Interestingly--and perhaps revealingly, though this I do not intend to pursue -- it is my only memory of a "family Thanksgiving." Certainly we observed such occasions when I was very small, but I do not remember them. By the time my memory had been activated, my father had become the headmaster of a boarding school sufficiently isolated so as to rule out brief trips home for those incarcerated there; so I partook of Thanksgiving dinner in the company of some 160 teen-aged girls, whose varying degrees of loveliness were of considerably greater interest to me than institutional turkey and canned cranberry jelly. Soon thereafter I was off to boarding school myself, and for Thanksgiving was shipped midway between school and home to my grandmother in Philadelphia; my memories of those years have less to do with sitting across the turkey from my much-loved but stone-deaf grandmother than with the Army-Navy football games it was my enormous good fortune to attend.
Over the years, I have developed as a result of this checkered history a greater affection for the traditional food of Thanksgiving than for the holiday itself. This is in no way to slight the reasons why we celebrate it -- even in this egregious hour of Pac-man, Reaganomics and frozen chopped onion, I find it possible and necessary to give thanks -- but to acknowledge that many of my Thanksgivings have had a somewhat fractured character. Further, the day itself, so redolent in our national mythology of "family," serves too often to remind me of how infrequently this dispersed, mobile culture permits me to see the members of my own family.
There are, in the family my parents made, six of us. Miraculously, considering the odds, all of us are still alive. But in the more than two decades since I last inhabited my parents' house as a permanent resident, we have not assembled en famille much more than a half-dozen times: my first wedding, the weddings of my two sisters, my parents' sapphire anniversary, a few other rites now jumbled in memory. I was the only grandchild at the funeral of the last of our grandparents, my brother was unable to be present at my second wedding, no graduation or christening has found us all on hand. As for Thanksgiving, I should imagine that the last on which all six of us were at the same table took place on the 24th of November, 1960.
This may seem peculiar, since as a family we are close, though not cloyingly so. But the explanation, as millions of other American families well know, is simple: we are scattered almost literally to the winds. My parents are in Rhode Island, one sister is in Minneapolis and the other in northern California, my brother is in Michigan, I am in Baltimore. Cast the net still farther and we find one uncle in Massachusetts, two in California, another in Hawaii. My own sons are in North Carolina: one in college, one with his mother. Though I see them as often as I can, we have not been at the same Thanksgiving table for a decade.
So in recent years my wife and I have created impromptu extended families to give the day heightened meaning. Perhaps the most successful of these was formed in Miami, of all places -- a city whose subtropical setting seems to mock the very notion of Pilgrims and turkeys and candied yams. There were eight or nine of us, in various stages of marital and romantic repair and disrepair, at the table that evening. We had acquired, at great expense and inconvenience, a smoked ham from Virginia, a delicacy thitherto unknown to several of our guests. The combination -- good food, good drink, good friends -- was precisely right for the moment, and for once I had the pleasure of Thanksgiving in the fullness of its aspects.
But the creation of an impromptu extended family comes with built-in risks, as was demonstrated on a more recent Thanksgiving. We had brought together four people, all much beloved by us, who demonstrated almost immediately that although they were entirely prepared to be agreeable to each other, they had almost nothing in common. The evening was spent in stilted camaraderie, a situation I did not improve by inhaling an excess of wine in hopes of quieting my jangled nerves. We broke up early, to the obvious relief of all.
So perhaps it is just as well that, for this year at least, our extended family has extended itself right out of existence -- to New Orleans, New York, California and similarly exotic locales. This Thanksgiving, we are taking a breather. After some discussion and a certain amount of lamentation, we decided to let someone else cook the bird and wash the dishes. We have reservations for the early afternoon at an inn some miles north of Baltimore, an establishment famed for its bucolic surroundings and inflated prices. We will have a bottle of good wine with which to toast each other, we will dine grandly on turkey and ham -- and we will chew very carefully.