Thanksgiving Traditions, Memories, and Spontaneous Reunions

Thanksgiving memories are enduring, even if some traditions are not.

One Thanksgiving tradition is as deeply loved as it was short lived. It was during my college years — it could even have been once and memory has morphed it into more. As I choose to remember it, the tradition was to gather my high school friends from our scattered collegiate cities, at my parents’ house the evening after Thanksgiving, to tell stories and laugh and dance and eat leftovers until our stomachs ached. Those friendships felt more burnished and eternal than the new friends I was still making (some of whom time has transformed into friends of the eternal variety).

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Circa 1987

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Dancing ’round the fountain.

My youngest son believes his elementary school besties will always be his gang. Maybe so.

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But if I look at my history, it is our older son who is arriving at an age when friendships might last. Next year he will begin high school, the very same high school where these friendships of mine were forged. This passage makes me think about these friends of mine who mattered more than anything in the world, a long time ago. And it makes me grateful for those I still count as my closest friends.

Every year as Thanksgiving approaches, these memories surface, and I contemplate sending out a call to reunite over pie tins, forks in hand. But every year the date comes and it goes.

Maybe it is right to leave good memories in their velvet cushioned boxes, precious treasures to admire from time to time. Or maybe it is wrong. Maybe it is time to send out the call — “PIE and DANCING, people!” — to see if spontaneity and nostalgia can overcome grown-up schedules and responsibilities to work their wonders. To reconnect with people I haven’t seen — some for decades, some for just days. To give my children a peek of the human treasures that await just beyond tomorrow’s thanks-filled sunset.

Give Thanks, Give Turkeys

A dozen volunteers hustled back and forth with groceries in their arms. Empty boxes filled the driveway and front yard of the small house cradled between the 105 and the 110 interchange. Taking care not to disturb their hosts’ carefully tended native plants, children and adults filled 125 boxes with groceries, to be delivered to hungry neighbors.

This scene has been replayed every month for fourteen years. On the last Sunday of the month, when many families in the neighborhood have empty pantries and are waiting for another pay day, the volunteers of “One on One Outreach” do their part to fill a need. The idea was the brainchild of the man at whose house we worked, who realized that his neighbors were going hungry.

I went this month with my husband, our seven-year-old son and fifteen-year-old niece. Alongside first-timers and veterans, we used our hands, arms, backs, legs and hearts. Like ants building a hill, we busied ourselves carrying this month’s assorted food and sundries, collected, sorted and stored each month by our host. Potatoes, plums and peaches. Bologna, granola bars and pistachios. Laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and baby powder.

I wondered how my seven-year-old would fare. It’s physical work –  two hours of lifting, bending, stuffing, organizing and checking that every box is complete. He became a boy on a mission. He carried gallons of juice down the long aisle of boxes, he saw to it that every box got a sack of potatoes, he ensured the plums would not be bruised. He grew three inches with the importance of his work.

We loaded the heavy boxes onto two pickup trucks, one suffering from time and use, the other shiny and sturdy. They cruised two short blocks, flimsy bungee cords miraculously holding boxes stacked six high. We followed on foot in the middle of the street (part of the fun for a seven year old).

We stopped at the first apartment building. One by one we carried boxes to appreciative families, until they were quickly gone.

My son and my niece, who have never known an empty pantry, or a refrigerator that couldn’t be restocked, glimpsed into the apartments and lives of people not born with that same gift. Overhearing his dad describing to me how many people were crammed into one particular apartment, our son said softly, hopefully, “But they have a happy life.” Noticing a courtyard of grass and cement, he said, “They have a lot of room to play outside.”

I wondered how to frame my response. Like all of us, he was trying to make sense of what he saw, of the disparity between his circumstances and those of the kids in front of him. I didn’t want him to feel pity, but empowerment and action. And while it’s true that anyone can be happy or sad — rich or poor — it’s a lot easier to be happy when your tummy is full. I thought of the tantrum my son threw two nights earlier, when he didn’t like what I’d made for dinner. I let his observation stand. “That’s true,” I said, “there’s lots of room to play.”

The next night would be Halloween, but in contrast to our neighborhood, there were few decorations. Our host and one of his neighbors are the only ones who hand out candy, he told me, and the kids just go back and forth between the two houses until they run out. He showed me boxes of treats stacked by his front door, ready for trick-or-treaters. “I usually hand out about a thousand,” he said.

We had promised our son one more trip to buy Halloween decorations, so after we finished, we headed back to West L.A to do that. We dropped twenty bucks on things that, despite my best intentions, will likely be thrown away or lost before next year – cotton spider webs, plastic bones, a kitty cat tail.

On Halloween, we accepted a friend’s invitation to join her in Malibu Colony. We passed through guarded gates to beachside mansions professionally decorated in elaborate ghoulish fashion. Up and down the street, generous hosts handed out fistfuls of candy or full-size candy bars. One offered an open bar and encouraged donations to UNICEF. All around us were revelers enjoying the decadent night, filling up on empty calories and joy.

“Twenty-four hours ago we were handing out groceries,” my husband reminded me, as we sat on the deck of a beach house listening to the ocean. It felt like much longer. Good thing we only have to wait until the Sunday before Thanksgiving for our next opportunity. “Bring gloves,” we were advised. “Those frozen turkeys get really cold.”

We will be there. Maybe you will, too.

Donate frozen turkeys to One on One Outreach, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades, 16019 Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades. Frozen turkeys will be collected there November 13, 14 and 15, and November 18. Contact me with questions.

What’s your favorite way to help others? Do you have a Thanksgiving tradition? Please share it.

Break(dancing) with Tradition.

It’s the good time of year. I always forget about the finer attributes of this season when I’m in the throes of summer, barefoot and carefree, no homework to supervise or lunchboxes to pack. Maybe it’s just the human survival instinct to be partial to the present, whenever it is. But this is the time of family holidays, connecting the dots of Autumn to Winter, and there is much to revel in.

As soon as the Halloween candy was counted, sorted, traded and consumed, my five-year-old announced, “I hate Thanksgiving.” I looked at him, considering the source of his proclamation. I concluded it has mostly to do with the food: no one offers him “turkey pizza” or “maca-turkey-roni and cheese.” And, he wanted to know, who ruins a pie by filling it with pumpkin?

“What about being together with family?” I asked him. He barely registered a grunt to accompany a gargantuan eyeroll.

Hate it as much as he wants, Thanksgiving still came. And that’s fine by me. I have always loved Thanksgiving. (It helps that I never host it.) That honor still falls to my parents, who make room every year for up to fifty relatives. From Minnesota, San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Tarzana (and the occasional cameo from New Jersey and New York), we meet in Los Angeles to sing folk songs and argue politics.

Yes, folks songs and politics. Besides Aunt Barbara’s cranberry apple crumb casserole (to die for), it is what makes my family’s Thanksgiving . . . well, my family’s Thanksgiving.

Things didn’t go as expected this year. Traditions fell by the wayside. Normally, at dinner my mother makes a political speech, drawing cheers from the Democrats and silence from the Republicans. My mother does not realize her speech is an annual rite of our Thanksgiving meal. It’s just what comes out of her mouth, a reflex. I guess that’s the genesis of traditions: they express who we are so deeply, that we can’t help but repeat them.

But things were different this year. Our guitar-strumming song leaders were home in San Francisco, laid out by the flu. No singing! Not one to adapt well to change, I was bereft. It must have been a welcome break to others, because my cousin Mitch from Orange County stepped right into the void, busting out poker chips and cards and instructing the children when to hold, when to fold.

Almost as disconcerting to my sense of order, there was no political speech by my mom! Just a generic “Welcome everyone, and enjoy the food!” How could this be? I was cast adrift. No folk songs, no arguing politics? What was left but to eat dessert?

The family room was crowded with cousins saturated with pies and cakes—boysenberry, pumpkin, apple, chocolate babka and amaretto. A smallish dent had been made in the fruit salad, by those of us wishing to balance the scales of guilty pleasures. The twenty-ninth football game of the day played on the big screen television—“Is this the same game that was on nine hours ago?” my mother asked my father.

Then it happened. One of the kids said, “Let’s play ‘So You Think You Can Dance!’” It’s our newest game at home, where my husband and I have been inculcating our “dance-is-for-girls” sons into the cult of a dance competition television show. The game is simple: turn on some music, dance a silly solo, and the panel of “judges” declares, “You’ve made the Top Twenty!” and the dancer goes wild.

There in the family room, with the big-screen football game as backdrop, the dancing began. We picked the most likely to break the ice and began to chant his name, “Christopher! Christopher!” After a few moments, he stood up, took his place on the floor, and Thanksgiving will never be the same.

Within seconds everyone was laughing as he leaped, stretched, and grabbed his body a la Michael Jackson. Immediately after him came my father, who has for years maintained that he is a natural born tap dancer and ballerina. His performance demonstrated that passion for sports and love of dance are not exclusive qualities. Over the course of the next hour, our five-year-old son danced several solos, our eight-year-old son (still with a broken foot) spun on the floor in his version of break-dancing. Their grandfather came back out for a duet with his granddaughter, lifts, spins and all. Their grandmother got up for her turn, and even cousin Joe from Minnesota felt the spirit of dance take him over. All the kids spun and jumped and wiggled together in a grand finale. But my favorite part? My children watching their mother, grandfather and great-grandmother doing a kickline to Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” If that’s not a new tradition to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.