The day after Thanksgiving my kids, grandkids and I will gather at my house as we do every year. I will set a lavish, autumn-themed tablescape and following a dinner with big bowls of mashed potatoes, leftover turkey, meatballs and more, each of us will decorate a gingerbread house, a tradition.
We make up funny categories: House I Would Most Like to Live In, Santa’s Favorite, House Destined for the Macy's Parade, Most Structurally Sound, etc. Everyone is quite competitive but we laugh a lot. The houses are cute; I keep them on display in the glass windowpane cupboard in my dining room for a long time. Each house gets a prize. Last year, my icing bag exploded, rendering my house a winner in the category, "I Tried."
In the background, my desktop computer loops the annual family video entitled "Seasons of Joy." Updated each year, it is filled with antics and outtakes from other dinners at Nanny's, that’s me, over the years.
After Charades and other games, an animated 5-foot Santa emerges from his closet-hiatus, swaying his hips enthusiastically, singing traditional holiday songs at a high decibel. The kids find him a bit annoying and would like me to give him away, but like other things, I'm not ready to let go. Like old-fashioned bubble lights, these holiday memories insist on my attention, their sparkly seductive swish and gossamer threads wafting upwards, colorful fragments bursting, then surfacing again each year.
Unwelcome childhood memories unexpectedly appear as I pull out my mom's crystal glasses. Except for the TV always on day and night, our house was quiet; we rarely had guests. I longed to have traditions and a family that looked like other families on TV. But like air bubbles in the lights, my holiday memories, effervescent tidings of comfort and joy, quickly evaporated.
One Thanksgiving, I asked if we could start a family tradition. My dad put down his Scotch, grabbed the freshly opened thick glass bottle of Coca-Cola in the center of the table and tipped it over his eye; "Here’s a tradition, how about this?” It wasn’t funny. But the next year, he did it again and we all laughed. Traditions.
We didn’t have a dining room; my sister and I had dinner seated at our TV snack tables two feet from the TV. We rarely sat together at the kitchen table except for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then the four of us devoured our dinners quickly before heading back to the TV, our only distraction the antics of our parakeets, Chipper and Snowflake, who pecked at our plates providing comic relief with incessant chirping during our otherwise muted meals.
Gathering together as a family usually meant something bad. Over the years, when we got together as a family, even on holidays, it was often by hospital beds and at nursing homes, at VA outpatient psychiatric wards or funeral parlors. "Sorry to see you under these circumstances," I repeated long before I understood what it meant. I prayed every night for two things. First, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” and second that I wouldn't go blind from sitting so close to the TV.
Good memories surface, too. There was always a big turkey at Thanksgiving, piles of presents under the tree, trips into the city to see the Rockettes and Rockefeller Center, taffeta dresses for my almost-Christmas birthday: buoyant bits and pieces encapsulated like in those little glass tubes, irrepressible happy-sad-good-bad strands swirling around together, rising to the top, then dissipating, seeking storage space in my memory closet.
On this day after Thanksgiving, once again, there will be much clatter and chatter; it’s my favorite day of the year. Grab bags gifts for everyone, houses to decorate, and prizes for Show and Tell. I love sitting around the table, doing a craft, sharing space and stories with my family. Santa will sing too loudly, the kids will light the candles at the table as they do each year. The recently edited family video features cameos of my grandkids’ girlfriend and boyfriend. This year, they made the cut.
I love that we gather; it's important to me. I hope that my kids and grandkids will remember these days fondly forever and more: the handmade ornaments we made and the houses we decorated, the blinking noses and Santa belting out “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” my exploding pastry bag and the singing turkey hat, the year everyone lost at Charades, laughing at Show and Tell......the stories and the space we all shared.
If not, there's YouTube. I’ve already uploaded the latest sequel to “Seasons of Joy.”
(gently revised from The Gingerbread Houses, originally posted November 2022)