My mother and my mother-in-law are both coming to Thanksgiving at our house. So is my sister-in-law. And my daughter.
Three generations at Thanksgiving is an American tradition, immortalized in Norman Rockwell paintings and millions of family photos. But it used to be easier to bring the generations together at the Thanksgiving table than it is now. In the middle of the 20th century, about one quarter of Americans lived in multi-generational households, but that proportion has been shrinking since then. The geographic movement of Americans west and south, both in retirement and for employment, has spread many families across the continent. Can the Thanksgiving tradition survive modern, highly mobile American life?
To put together this Thanksgiving gathering, my daughter is flying in from Massachusetts and my mother-in-law is driving from Minneapolis, with the help of her daughter. My mother used to live in California, but came to live here in Jacksonville when my father died. The geographical mobility of Americans across our vast continent makes such family gatherings more costly, difficult and rare.
When I grew up near New York City, both sets of my grandparents lived within a two-hour drive, and my cousins lived around the corner. Most of my extended family lived in the New York metropolitan area. Now we are spread across the country, making family gatherings for holidays less frequent.
Even though family holidays seem like unchanging traditions, in fact they evolve as the cast of characters changes. Children grow up and for a few years bring partners to the family meals. Eventually they make their declaration of independence and become the hosts, often blending traditions they like from their families of origin with new ideas. The oldest generation gives up its leading role to a middle-aged child, reserving the right to grumble when recipes are changed or new dishes are added.
Each Thanksgiving is unique. This time, we will miss the grandfathers. My father-in-law can no longer travel and rarely leaves his nursing home. My son will celebrate with his in-laws. My other sister-in-law hosts her own Thanksgiving for her children in Minneapolis.
So our table of six will be thankful for this occasion to celebrate together. My daughter will bring stories of her work, where she is taking on new challenges and responsibilities, discovering what she can do and what she needs to learn. My sister-in-law is preparing to return to apartment living, after 35 years of home ownership. My mother-in-law has gradually been getting used to living alone, taking courses at the local university, developing a new life. My mother has a new home at Jacksonville Skilled Nursing and new people who surround her.
My wife is thinking about working for a new boss, as Illinois College makes the transition to its 14th President. I am about to teach for the last time a course I have taught a dozen times before, as my career in academia approaches its end.
Maybe because it happens slowly, we don’t notice how often we must recreate our habits, our daily routines. Jobs change, neighbors move, and the great events of family life add and subtract loved ones from our lives.
We all have much to wonder about. The future is unpredictable. Maybe that’s why we cherish the familiarity of Thanksgiving dinners. I’ll be happy to see the creamed onions and the homemade cranberry sauce. I’ll be even happier to hear what my family says, as we go around the table, telling each other what we are thankful for. In the midst of constant change, the love of family is something we can rely on. Like turkey and stuffing.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 20, 2012