Many large families gather around an event which brings all the extended members together for at least a day. Fourth of July barbeques. Christmas dinners. Annual reunions. Since moving to Miami in 1998, I’ve lost touch with my father’s side of the family. I miss those reunion barbeques in August at my Uncle Don’s house, eating grilled hotdogs and hamburgers, sucking down soda and a dozen different side salads, playing horse shoes and bocce. But travel isn’t cheap, and sacrifices must be made to honor that most sacred of holidays, Thanksgiving.
Aunt Val hosts Thanksgiving every year. We don’t all pull up on Thursday, watch some football, eat, watch some more football, and go home. I mean my aunt hosts. We start arriving on Tuesday. My parents, my siblings and their families, my cousins and their families, my aunts and uncles and their families, and often friends of the family. Tuesday’s dinner is chicken and rice. Wednesday is spaghetti with meatballs and sausage. Thursday is turkey (with mashed potatoes, stuffing, banana bread, zucchini bread, a pickle sample platter, cranberry, gravy, salad, celery stuffed with cream cheese, five kinds of squash, pistachio whip, broccoli, rolls to sop it all up with, and an extra turkey for sandwiches the rest of the week). Friday is ham. Saturday is pork loin. Drinks are milk, cider, lemonade, and Folgers and Starbucks coffee.
Dessert? We still talk about the year Aunt Elly, Aunt Val, and my sister-in-law Kim got overzealous. We had enough pies that we could have taken one a piece, over twenty in all. Each year, we have pumpkin, apple, cherry, lemon meringue, and chocolate. Usually there’s pecan, and at least one raspberry or blueberry. It’s the variations which defy pie logic. Pecan pumpkin. Stawberry rhubarb. Deep-dish apple. Granny smith apple. Cranberry apple. None of this includes cheesecake, ice cream, Val’s brownies, and Elly’s life-altering Peanut Butter Blossoms.
Sunday we make our way back home, driving from as close as ten minutes away and as far as four hours and all points between, some of us waiting for flights back to Florida. Aunt Val doesn’t bed all of us for six days anymore. My cousin Shannon bought a house a few years back, and some of us have taken to staying there. But we remember growing up, how every flat surface of the living room had a body. We make sure the youngest generation is aware of what they missed.
Traditionally, drinking happens after nightfall. My parents’ generation enjoyed tipping a few but stopped the practice before I developed any solid memories of their behavior. My own drinking started at the tail end of my generation’s wildest behaviors. It’s all fairly mellow now. A few beers around the bonfire (there’s always a bonfire Thursday, sometimes expanding to Wednesday and Friday as well) or at Shannon’s, progressing to several beers and a shot or two as the week goes on.
This year we didn’t play Kick the Can during Thursday’s bonfire because the ground was too squelchy. We took a lap around the fire to honor Tota’s memory instead. Let me say, not much of an honor. I can picture Tota looking down and rocking with her powerful laugh that sounded like climbing stairs, up and up and up and up, even as she’s touched by the emotion behind our amateur effort. Our family is not traditional. We’ve never attended dances or ceremonies. Still, we took a lap around the bonfire.
My cousin Ciera, who has been to ceremonies, told us to all move in a slow circle. The last person ran to take the lead, then the new last person ran to take the lead, and so on. I had one piece of Indian music from my CD collection memorized, so I started to sing it. I have no idea what I was saying. We giggled as we moved, gradually getting faster. Eventually, we were racing my sister when her turn came, and she never made it to the front. I stopped singing, and we grew self-conscious and stopped moving.
“I’m sorry, Tota,” Aunt Jeri laughed up at the night sky, tears rolling down her cheeks. “That’s the best we could do.”
This year my brother AJ and my sister-in-law Kim didn’t come. He’s never missed a year. Not once.
Every year for decades, we’ve played a Turkey Bowl. My uncle Mark retired at forty, scoring touchdowns in November, crippled with Rheumatoid arthritis in February. We’ve played Ice Bowls and Mud Bowls, we played two-hand touch in the street one year when the ground was frozen to concrete, and we’ve fielded a full eleven on eleven, with subs waiting on the sidelines. In twenty-five years we’ve never needed one phone call to gather a neighborhood crowd.
Every year starts as two-hand touch and winds up full-contact. As my siblings, cousins, and my Shannon’s friends from the neighborhood have approached and passed forty, injuries have mounted. But we’ve always played.
Not this year.
My aunts and my parents have been getting up at five for Black Friday’s shopping specials since forever. This year they slept in.
My nephews - eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-two - asked if they could spend the night at Shannon’s. Really, they were asking to party with us. There’s nothing like seeing a kid whose diapers you’ve changed holding a beer to tell you time is passing.
It’s been on our minds for some years, on our lips more often. How much longer can we keep this up? When we compliment Aunt Val on her hosting and cooking skills, she pooh-poohs her efforts, saying she gets so much help that it's a breeze. She says she’ll keep doing it until it stops being fun.
Here’s hoping she’ll always find it fun.
Here’s hoping she lives to be a hale one hundred.
Here’s hoping my generation will be able to host a feast half as decadent, delicious, and filled with love.