I didn’t enjoy or look forward to Thanksgiving growing up. Not because of the strained or awkward family dynamics often present at Thanksgiving gatherings. Not because of the odd food you never eat any other time of the year – bitter cranberry sauce, chestnut stuffing, mashed turnips, etc. Not because of the travel or long road trips – we stayed put; my parents hosted.
These would all be good reasons, but what unnerved me so was the collection of people my parents invited to our table. The elderly cat woman from across the street that mumbled, moved her lower jaw incessantly, and smelled of cigarettes (and cats, of course). The old friend from childhood, single, childless, and not knowing how to talk to kids, the co-worker estranged from his wife and children, the manic-depressive home-health aide working next door, and anyone else passing through that had no plans, or place to go. My parents never felt the need to explain to me or my sisters why these were our guests, why we didn’t go to our grandparents’, aunts’ or uncles’ houses. This was just the way it was.
Now, as it turns out, my wife and two boys have been going to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving the past several years. Many of the guests are different, but share the same profile. When we arrive, I see the same leery look in my boys’ eyes – the same one I once had. They eat quietly and quickly, trying not to draw any attention to themselves or having to interact much with the guests before asking to be excused.
But they see the same thing I saw at the table growing up; their grandparents talking, laughing, and thoroughly enjoying the company of their guests. There is nothing awkward, forced, or different about their interactions. And they also see me and my wife doing the same.
Jake Murray is the Senior Director at Aspire Institute. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services.