We have empty seats at our Thanksgiving spread. This year, someone else will slice open the boiled eggs and mix the yolks with paprika and relish before presenting them as deviled eggs, the way my grandmother did every Turkey Day for as long as I can remember. Someone else has been making Aunt Gail’s famous corn casserole, a family recipe with enough cream to blow a diet, since she bravely fought lymphoma and passed away three years ago. The food is a symbol, but the missing person’s laugh, long-winded story, or welcome quiet is irreplaceable.
My husband and I have lost one family member every year for nine years. Our hearts are tired, heavy, and decidedly changed since this started happening in our twenties. It’s enough to make you stress-eat the stuffing. During this time, my husband and I patched together rich experiences between our two sons and their elders, and we continue to do so with the people still with us.
The boys have learned to show gratitude in the form of sharing time. It’s not always easy to implement. They are young and genuine, and living with the me, me, me mantra typical of the modern child, and indeed, generations of children before them (no matter what label they give themselves in retrospect). During the Thanksgiving season and beyond, how can parents provide meaningful connections between children and their loved ones?
Eyes Up Here
Whenever we meet up with family and friends, the hypnotic, buzzing devices take a break. (Exceptions for desperate cases. We’ve all been there.) Grandparents, aunts, and uncles deserve eye contact during a conversation and complete sentences, instead of guttural noises or a view of the kid’s faux-hawk because he’s bent to view a screen better.
Some young children aren’t sparkling conversationalists, so prompt them with, “Tell Pap about gymnastics class!” and let the excitement take over.
Story time is best for one-on-one bonding, cozied up, discovering an imaginary world together. Ask Aunt Kristen to read to your kids, and if they’re old enough, let them read back.
Far and Away
Birthday parties, weddings, sports games, funerals, winter holidays, taco Tuesdays, anniversaries, baby births, Halloween parties, graduations. Who are the treasured people surrounding you and your family during these occasions? Keep inviting them. Every time.
Often, relatives or best friends relocate to different cities for jobs, retirement, education opportunities, or any number of reasons. Remember the hypnotic, buzzing devices? Pull ’em out! Maybe they aren’t so evil after all. Maintaining a relationship with family is important for children, grounding them with a sense of where their parents – and they themselves – come from. Skype is a wonderful application to visit face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) in real time, and free to download. Similarly, shared videos via mobile phone or uploaded to social media bring long-distance loved ones into the loop.
Every Christmas, we bring out a Hallmark recordable storybook of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all four of us gather to listen. My husband’s mother recorded the narration of the story, before she even knew she was sick. How special this book has become for us! We honor my mother-in-law and her love of a traditional holiday season by hearing the comforting lilt of her voice again.
Through the Woods
Trips to my Grandma’s trigger memories of dipping a toe in the creek behind the house, or enjoying cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven. I also recall pungent Bengay and no cable. Provide moments at a relative’s home to sear the giggles, bloody knees, and homemade sun tea into everyone’s brains. Of course, it’s even better if they have games, live on a cool property, or are still able to physically hang out with the kids. To avoid boredom during the stay, pluck everyone out of their routine and visit a park, museum, the beach, any place that will spark future Remember when we…? stories.
We embarked on this very mission last year, when my husband longed for a fishing trip at Myrtle Beach on Cherry Grove Pier with his grandfather like they had twenty years before, but with our sons along for the fun. Granddaddy hadn’t vacationed at the beach since back then, and together the guys fished on the same pier, built sandcastles, ate hand-dipped ice cream, and racked up tickets at the arcade. When his health declined and Granddaddy died this past April at the age of ninety-two, we were thankful he could see the ocean one last time with his family.
In the circumstances that families are small or estranged, or the thought of spending money on inflated plane tickets during peak season gives you heartburn, throw a Friendsgiving to create a community for you and your children. Supply the turkey or ham and drinks. Others can bring a side or dessert. Or book reservations at a restaurant that’s open on Turkey Day. A prerequisite? Adults and children must get along.
Two families in Richmond we are close with can’t always travel to their relatives who live far away. Each year, they are welcome at our house during Thanksgiving. Our boys gobble up one roll and a slice of pie in two minutes, and then rush outside to throw a football with the other kids. Family need not be blood relatives, and the memories are equally sweet.
Yes, we have loved ones missing at our Thanksgiving table. Our sons knew them well and adored them. The cooking, sharing, football-playing, and parade-watching traditions live on through us. Now neighbors sit here, friends from way back, and a baby nephew who will grow up to run with the wild bunch.
My husband and I have learned over the past nine years: Do it now. Host the cousin sleepover. Plan a ladies’ shopping trip to D.C. to see the Christmas lights. Schedule a generational portrait session. Record voices or journal stories straight from the source. Take your grandfather fishing with his great-grandsons. Quirkiness, nerve-grating arguments, embarrassment. That’s what family is. It’s never too late to give your kids every opportunity to discover the people who share your DNA – and your heart.