People who know me well know that Thanksgiving is, and always has been, my favourite holiday. More than Christmas, Easter, Labour Day, Canada Day, Valentines Day, or any other celebration, Thanksgiving is the holiday that resonates most with me.
I come by the preference honestly; it was my parents’ favourite holiday too, even though it was a new one for both of them. While they came from places that celebrated the bounty of the harvest, they appreciated a day that acknowledged ALL the things for which they were grateful – and as immigrants, survivors of war and the loss of their homes and many of their family members, they were both proud and incredibly grateful to be Canadians. They gladly took Thanksgiving traditions to their hearts.
Thanksgiving dinner when I was growing up was an absolute feast. Even in the years when money was tight because the union at Ford was out on strike, our Thanksgiving table managed to groan under the weight of turkey and all the trimmings. Although, for most of the years before I married, my grandmother had a home of her own – with husband #5 ! – Thanksgiving was always cooked,and celebrated, at my parents’ house. Grandma might bring the pies for dessert, but my mom was in charge of everything else, and neither I nor anyone else dared enter her kitchen when she was in full chef mode.
It is worth noting that there were traditions honoured at our table that represented, to me, the essence of Thanksgiving. There was the food, of course. Neither turkey, nor fruit pie, were foods that either of my parents ate in their home countries of Hungary and Poland. My father ate turkey for the first time while living in Leamington, Ontario, and my mother’s first experience with pie was learning how to make it from the nuns at the convent where she worked. Sweet corn, too, was unfamiliar (corn was animal feed where they came from), as were cranberries, and yet both were de rigueur on our Thanksgiving table.
Beyond food, though, was the idea that Thanksgiving was a time to give others something to be thankful for too. That meant that if one of our neighbours, or one of dad’s co-workers at the Ford plant, was going to be alone on Thanksgiving, they were welcome at our table. My brother and I were expected to be welcoming and friendly to whoever might appear. Looking back, I don’t ever remember feeling like we were crowded at the table, although until I was 10 we lived in a 900 square foot house, and the dining room held not only my parents’ expandable Duncan Fyffe style table, but also a pullout couch on which my great-grandmother slept while she still lived with us.
After Ted and I married, Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated at my parents’ house, now a much larger place. As our family expanded, and my brother and I both had children of our own, there were 13 family members to feed, plus any “extra” folks that needed to be taken in. One of the things our sons remember is that their grandmother never seemed to sit down to eat with us. There was a chair and a place-setting for her, but she always seemed to be jumping up to get more gravy, or drinks, or fussing with something or other in the kitchen while the rest of us ate.
In the 1990’s, mom started to fade. Although she had not yet descended into the dementia that would eventually steal her from us, preparing big family dinners became too much for her. Christmas dinner was the first casualty, then Christmas itself, which she decided was too pagan. My sister-in-law and I began hosting Christmas alternate years. Mom held on to Thanksgiving until the middle of the decade, and then – seemingly with no reluctance at all – handed it over to me.
I have to admit, I was thrilled for it to be my turn to stuff the turkey, make the sweet potato soufflé, bake the pies, and lace the homemade cranberry sauce with Grand Marnier. I loved the fact that it was now our table that hosted the “Thanksgiving orphans”: #1 son’s best friend who was stranded between parents, #2 son’s school chums whose families had gone on vacation without them, university roommates or military basic training buddies too far from home to be able to go there for just a long weekend.
While my mom was happy to hand over the day, my dad had an “issue”. As patriarch of the family he felt it was his duty to provide the turkey, while I felt that now that he and mom were living on a pension the financial cost of the feast should fall on us. It was a test of wills every year. I particularly remember one year when I was sure I had (finally) won. Two days later I found a $50 bill in the tissue box in our powder room- Dad was NOT going to be denied.
Some years, not everyone has made it to the table. In 2003, my amazing grandmother died, followed by my Dad in 2006, and my mom in 2010. For several years, #2 son and his family were posted to CFB Greenwood, and had leave only at Christmas, but even if our only Thanksgiving dinner guests were #1 son and his wife, we always encouraged them to bring a friend…. because there was still going to be a feast!
For the past 2 years, since becoming nomadic, we’ve been away from home at Christmas, making Thanksgiving even more important. #2 and his family are now in Ontario, and it has made me really happy to include my daughter-in-law’s parents in our celebration. We have so many things – including 3 shared grandsons – for which to be grateful.
So…. Thanksgiving weekend 2020 is just a day away. Ontario is on high alert due to rising COVID19 cases, and we’re limited to family gatherings of only 10 people. Son #2 is in Toronto, where folks are currently restricted to seeing only those in their immediate household, so his family cannot travel to join us in Collingwood. Nonetheless, we’re grateful that they are healthy, employed, and safe. We’ve been in a “social bubble” of 10 people for almost six months now: #2 son, his wife and 3 sons, and both sets of grandparents makes 9, so that will be the cohort around this year’s Thanksgiving table.
In preparation, I’ve ordered a smaller-than-usual fresh free-range turkey from our local butcher, and will only be baking 2 pumpkin pies (plus an apple pie – because it’s tradition, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to break tradition!) I’ll only need one bottle of Prosecco, and only one of Ontario ice wine for after dinner.
But I’ve laced the cranberries with an extra lavish dose of Grand Marnier.
We can all be grateful that it’s almost over.