Thanksgiving at my house when I was growing up was no Norman-Rockwell picture of extended family getting together. My parents were not generally on speaking terms with their brothers and sisters and my grandparents were all dead.
My father, who was not a person of fine sentiments, not much of an observer of anniversaries or holidays, nonetheless liked Thanksgiving because it centered on his preferred sacrament: food and plenty of it.
Both my parents themselves had grown up in extended families with ethnic grandmothers who fretted about the gross extravagance of putting 20 pounds of turkey in front of people whose appetites hadn’t first had the dangerous edge taken off with large platters of spaghetti or bowls of borscht. Their Thanksgiving memories were colored by internecine wars started over the groaning Thanksgiving table and destined to last beyond indigestion, well into the happy New Year.
Later on, Thanksgiving became for them a time of rebellion against oppressive familial obligations. At 16, my mother went to a basketball game to watch her friend Louie’s game and subsequently enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at his house – all without telling her mother.
My father, on the other hand, though he was going through his own adolescent fight against oppressive relatives - two Catholic priest uncles who, among other things, objected to his reading the essays of atheist British philosopher Bertrand Russell – could be reliably counted on to appear when the chow was served up.
Many years later, my father indirectly caused my first non-festive Thanksgiving by having a heart attack just before the holiday. I was adrift academically, my father was in the hospital, and Thanksgiving – the giving thanks part – seemed to sound a false note.
In the first few years after my father died, my mother came to my home for Thanksgiving. Looking for something more than a sleepy afternoon with indigestion, she found herself remembering all our former home Thanksgivings with no company and no extended family – annoying or not – gathered around the table.
She looked out into the world and saw there were many people setting a lonely table for the holidays. It was the impetus for the greatest achievement of her life. She started a community Thanksgiving dinner – Thanksgiving Together.
Over the years these community get-togethers have become an institution in Honesdale, PA and several surrounding towns – Christmas Together, New Years Together and Saturdays Together. When she died in 2006, we started a fund in her memory and last year donated a freezer to the Together organization with a plaque, noting it as the Janet Carter Memorial Thanksgiving Together Freezer. It was a monument that I know she would have liked.
My mother liked to point out that these meals are not about charity. They are about, as the name says, being together. And for the growing number of people who come every month and year, these events are a counter to the atomization of so many lives today, a blessing to families as much as to those with distant or no family.
And, yes, even to those teenagers who can’t bear hearing Uncle Ralph lie, er, talk about walking five miles to school in arctic conditions one more time.