Seated Around the Table Part Two: My Children’s Generation
My children would probably say that I am a lot like my mother (pictured above). By the time they were old enough to remember, we ate dinner together most nights at 6:30. It was rare that one of them missed due to an activity. When they were too young to wait for Fred to get home from work, I often gave them dinner earlier and had a later, separate meal for my husband. Unfortunately for my waistline, I often ate part of both meals.
Those early kids-only dinners weren’t too terrific or healthy. I remember lots of mac and cheese, with plain buttered mac for my son, who was a fussy eater, and double cheese for his sisters, who though Kraft’s was an extra cheesy brand until he left home. The girls ate a variety of terrible fast-foods: fish sticks, Spaghetti-Os, Tater Tots, hot dogs. Their brother often ate only cheese and mustard. Once a week, a friend and I took the kids to Burger King. Great eating habits, but in my defense, I did have to prepare a separate adult dinner.
Once they were old enough to wait for Fred, the scene resembled the one from my childhood: three kids with assigned seats to minimize hitting and kicking, and the same meal for everyone, served at the butcher block kitchen table. I often made some form of chicken or casserole or meat-and-potato with salad type meal. But there were some major differences from the family meals of my childhood: no bread, no milk, no dessert, no clean plate club rules, and alternate meals for those who disliked what I cooked. My kids were always free to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the microwave opened up other quick and easy options. Also, we did talk about their days and ideas rather than stuffing ours down their throats.
The larger family gatherings, the ones involving birthdays and holidays and eating in the dining room, are the ones the I remember most clearly. Like me, my husband has a large extended family. Altogether, my children had three grandparents, ten aunts and uncles, and twelve cousins, plus six second cousins from the oldest two cousins on Fred’s side. They grew up having two birthday celebrations, the family party and another for friends.
My side and Fred’s at Alissa’s Bat Mitzvah, 1986
When my mother-in-law was widowed at 57 and moved into an apartment a year later, she declared she was done with hosting holiday gatherings. She would make soup or bake something, but that was it. The next generation of women stepped up and took over these events when we were in our thirties. I sometimes hosted Chanukah parties and Passover, but my main event was the huge family Thanksgiving dinner. The year of my daughter’s birth, 1973, was the last time I was not in charge of Thanksgiving. Because it was Alissa’s birthday, it became my holiday. For 40 years, I hosted it in various evolving iterations. My husband’s ever-expanding family lived in town, so they always came. My parents came every year as well. For a time, my siblings and eventually their wives drove in from Michigan. At some point, they had kids and splintered off to celebrate with their own families at home.
Still, the numbers grew and grew. Babies were born, nieces and nephews married, and the holiday gathering was out of control. By the time I was setting three huge tables and squeezing 40 guests into my house, I knew my relationship with Thanksgiving was in trouble. My kids were now married and having children. It was just too much.
I needed to have back surgery in 2006 to allow myself to stop this tradition. After our parents died and my husband’s family broke into smaller units to celebrate, for many years just two of my kids, their spouses, their six kids, and my husband and I gathered around my table. That was a very manageable number, but I still stressed out over hosting.
My first issue was the Thanksgiving menu. No matter how many people came, I felt obliged to make everyone’s favorites. Of course, turkey, dressing, fresh cranberries, vegetables, and pumpkin pie were required. With my family at that stage, that fed about half of them. I also cooked entrees for vegetarians and fussy grandkids who would not eat most of these traditional foods. And I now needed two birthday cakes, one for my daughter and another for my young grandson, Austin.
My second issue with this reduced family gathering was my unrealistic expectations: We should all be dressed nicely. We should go around the table and tell each other what we were thankful for. We should even sit at the table together until the meal was done. Instead, my grandkids wore dress-up clothes so they could perform to Taylor Swift’s music after eating 20% of the food made especially for them. Someone inevitably made a joke about what they were thankful for and we never got around the table. By the end of the meal, maybe four of us were left still eating. And then there was the clean-up.
But the scene I described above was my family’s newest tradition. When I brought out the traditional chocolate birthday cake for Alissa as well as an Elmo cake for Austin, and we all sang Happy Birthday, I felt ever so grateful that, 40 years later, Thanksgiving was associated with now two special birthdays.
Family life has changed since my generation took on this responsibility as young adults. Only one of my kids resides in my state, and it is challenging enough to get my own nuclear family together once a year. My daughter, nieces, and nephews who live in town have smaller homes and larger work demands. They are also less prone to feeling guilty about not hosting extended family gatherings that include cousins by the dozens. That’s my generation’s tradition, not theirs.
Perhaps that is the main reason I continue hosting holiday events long past when I am physically able to manage them. I fear that if I don’t carry on with these large gatherings, no one else will do it. The truth is, letting go means accepting my status as family matriarch and frankly old. Soon, my aching back and forgetful mind will make these holiday gatherings too challenging for me to continue, so they will most likely cease. Because I fear this change, I soldier on, sad that the end of the large family holiday table is in sight. I know I have let go gracefully and accept that traditions evolve, and that’s not always a bad thing. I’m ready to pass the drumstick to the next generation and assume my new status as grateful guest.
Lots of birthdays celebrated in my dining room, 1996
Thanksgiving/Birthday in my dining room, 2013