The signs were everywhere. Her aunt was counting seats, calling in chits and getting moderately hysterical. Her uncle was staying calm and thereby getting into trouble.

The children were figuring out a way they could get to sit together -- "We promise to be quiet this year" -- and the adults were figuring out whether an advance fast would mean they could eat the stuffing.

Everything was running on schedule, which is to say behind schedule, which is to say according to family tradition.

The woman liked it. She was a closet traditionalist, and Thanksgiving was her annual coming-out party.

She was perhaps the chief family lobbyist for sameness, had even rooted for turkey, which to be honest, she despised. But there was something about Thanksgiving that was positively atavistic. She felt like a kid or a curator who wanted everything in its place.

She wondered sometimes whether people who live with change, cope with it, even embrace it as hopeful, also long the most for sameness. She wondered why the loving was so often associated with family and with this Thanksgiving, this time when we celebrate bringing in the family as if it were our harvest.

The notion of an unchanging family was, of course, an illusion. She knew that. Her family was not, any more than any other, a frozen entity, a tableau vivante directed by Norman Rockwell.

There had been additions and subtractions accompanied by mournings, separations and celebrations. The women were working now, and the children were growing now, and occasionally one member or another was on lead-lease to another holiday table.

Yet for all that, family means stability.

And not just for her. The people she knows, even those who lived much of the year at great emotional or geographic distances, come home this day -- not to a place setting but to a sense of place. They feast on connections and satiate themselves on belonging.

Many of us have willy-nilly traded security for mobility. We pride ourselves on flexibility and calculate our sense of freedom by the number of choices we have.

Then, too, we are encouraged to constantly reassess the jobs we have, the people we love, the places we live by the standards of "happiness" and self-fulfillment. If they don't measure up, we are supposed to move on to new houses, new towns, new lovers -- as if they were brand names.

But faced with a smorgasbord, we sometimes long for a sit-down meal. Independents get nostalgic for belonging. People who live as interchangeable subjects in a job, or even a bed, long for uniqueness. They want an assigned role and a permanent title, like mother, father, aunt, cousin.

It seemed to her that one of the most remarkable and even attractive things about families is that they don't choose each other; they just live with each other. Even those who feud acknowledge a bond, and those who argue about everything from politics to sports find a way to share the pain.

No, none of us pick our parents or our cousins from a catalog. We cannot decide will be our nephew this year or whether to find new children who might better contribute to out sense of self-worth.

Yet, in the end, they are the context in which we live, the given, the harbingers of our history, the people who know us because they knew us when. They own their place by eminent domain, and we give them the priorities of blood.

Communes and communities that we have built to last, with almost calculating cautiousness, fall. But the families that grow like Topsy with all the eccentricities of nature, with people who have only each other in common, survive.

It is odd, but in a world that gives lip service to the importance of change, we have known all our lives. In an era when we are supposed to pick carefully, we care most fully about those we haven't picked at all.

In the end, we are closest to those we're stuck with. And maybe that is the oldest tradition of all.