Thanksgiving to me, as an only child growing up in New York City, was a bit of an oxymoron. It was a holiday I would share with millions and a holiday that I often spent on my own with my mother and father. Occasionally we ventured into the country, to visit my cousins in Connecticut, and sometimes my other cousins from Rochester, New York would spend the holiday with us. I loved those Thanksgivings when other children were around. But most often we stayed home, just the three of us. Thanksgiving was never one of my favorite holidays. Sandwiched in between Halloween and Christmas, it seemed a bit lackluster to me.
My mother always started cooking early in the morning and while she did, my father and I bundled up, headed through the park over to Central Park West where, for many years, I sat comfortably on his shoulders and watched all the balloons and floats pass us by. I don’t particularly remember the crowds. Maybe it wasn’t as crowded back then, or perhaps I was simply too focused on the entertainment in front of me. If you’ve never been to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, it’s truly a treat. It’s magical and festive and really sets the tone for the holiday season. There is no place more miraculous, magical or spectacular than Manhattan during the holiday season.
Once the parade was over we headed back over to the East Side and home. I grew up in a beautiful, elegant, old prewar building on Fifth Avenue that was 14 stories tall. We lived on the 9th had elevator men who drove the elevator for us. You could smell the fabulous dinner cooking away as you stepped out of the elevator and into the vestibule. Upon entering our apartment the aromas seemed to swirl around you much the way they do in an animated movie. There’s no place like home for the holidays, even if you happen not to adore turkey.
We got dressed up for dinner. For me that meant putting on a dress, white tights and my patent leather Mary James. Dinner was always served 4:00 in the afternoon. It was dark in the city then and so it always seemed so much later than it was. My parents, though now in Newport, Rhode Island celebrate Thanksgiving just as they had when I was a child, just the two of them now. They still dress for their dinner.
When I entered my teens I was often invited away with friends for the long Thanksgiving weekend to weekend homes in the Hamptons or on Nantucket. My parents seemed to have no problem letting their only child go. And now, a parent myself, I am quite sure they delighted in the peace and quiet of a childless weekend. I loved my Thanksgivings with my friends. They were bigger and rowdier and seemed to me to be what Thanksgiving was really all about. It was more than just food, but surrounding yourself with friends and family. On the day of the big meal while mothers were busily cooking away in the kitchen we’d all head out on adventures, along the beach, riding horses, playing football – being out and active and really working up our appetites.
As we wandered back inside at the end of the afternoon to wash up and change for dinner, the same wonderful and mesmerizing smells emerged from the kitchen and seemed to envelop us all. The first time I had been to one of these large affairs I had never seen so much food! The dining room table was not quiet and calm, but loud with laughter and conversation. And after our bellies were full, so full that we practically could not move but we all went back outside in the dark to work off our feast and delighted in many rounds of flashlight tag and other similar adventures in the dark. I loved experiencing this holiday life with large families.
Many years later I would marry into a large family with busy and chaotic Thanksgivings with lots of chatter, laughter and much too much food. While I loved it all – the busyness, the camaraderie and the cheer, it seemed to me that something was missing. I wanted my own Thanksgiving but I knew it would be years before that would happen again. I started to understand my parents’ appreciation for the quiet celebration at home.
On what would have been my daughter’s first Thanksgiving, we were set to head off to visit family but her high fever put our plans to a halt. I was determined to create a Thanksgiving of our own, for just the three of us. Suddenly it had come full circle. And there I was with my husband and my only child and quiet holiday at home. I rushed out that morning delighted to find my grocery store was open. I picked up a turkey and all the workings for our side dishes. I worked away happily in the kitchen. The house was starting to smell wonderful. I was happy not to have to get in the car and drive somewhere. I was happy to be home with nowhere to go. I can’t speak for my husband who probably would have much preferred to have been with a larger crowd, but I liked it. This, after all, was my family. We were just three but we were a family.
After that year, as my little family started to expand, we piled into our station wagon turned minivan turned SUV to visit our rapidly growing extended families. But something had changed after that first Thanksgiving at home. I realized that I while I loved the company of others, I needed my own Thanksgiving in my own home with my own family, with my own kitchen on overdrive, and most importantly, with my own leftovers! I mean, what’s Thanksgiving without leftovers?
So now, no matter where we are and no matter where our own travels take us, my children know that we will have our own Thanksgiving in the quiet of our own home. They may not love it. They may find it lackluster and boring. It’s not loud and rowdy and it might not fall on the last Thursday of the month but it’s ours and maybe one day when they too are all grown with their own families, they may look back one day and appreciate our more intimate gatherings.
I still don’t much care for turkey and neither do my children, so we roast a couple of larger chickens instead. Leftover chicken makes for wonderful sandwiches as well.