My family’s first Thanksgiving in Columbus was a miserable affair. My husband and two kids stared at each other over the turkey-and-trimmings feast, wondering how many days they’d have to eat this meal before calling it quits.
We’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, family-wise. His folks live in England, mine in Seattle, and due to a job transfer we ended up in the Midwest nine hours and several thousand dollars away from all of them.
The second Thanksgiving I invited friends, but all the men got sick and stayed home. My husband lay in bed upstairs as my 13-year-old son took the top of the table to carve the turkey. The following year, our neighbors invited us to their family’s Thanksgiving dinner, perfect with cut glass, silver, and linen napkins.
Throughout the fourth year, I continued to scope out my friends, asking who didn’t have family to go to, inviting them to join us for the big day when we also reciprocated by asking our neighbors to our house.
Often I battled a culture war with my Anglo-Italian husband who didn’t understand the tradition. “If it’s such a fuss, let’s just not do it,” he’d suggest hopefully, thinking he could avoid cleaning, moving the table, being shooed away from the food, and my ratcheting tension.
“No way!” I’d reply, going ahead with what I considered the bare essentials: Cooked cranberry sauce, an organic turkey, the Jell-O salad (my mother’s 1950s recipe), real mashed potatoes and gravy, from-scratch dressing, fresh bread, and pumpkin pie.
I replayed 1970s memories of my uncle’s house in Seattle: Rainy outside, inside steamy and warm with cooking; potato chips and sour cream dip, aunts pretending to be nice to each other, kids playing Billiards and Mousetrap in the basement, the television tuned to the Huskies’ football game.
At those dinners I would eat until I was past the point of full, and announce to the grown-ups: “I am stuffed right up to here!” pointing to my eyebrows.
In Ohio, we eventually came up with a reliable guest list of friends who didn’t have family nearby, and began to create our own happy traditions. Gratitude was the most important part. I would put a tray of unlit tea-lights on the table. After grace each person would light a candle and say what they were thankful for this year, and pass the tray along.
During the meal, the candles would burn brightly in the center, a reminder of our prayers.
A few years ago my husband approached me about Thanksgiving. He wondered if it would take the stress off me to hold it at his winery, Via Vecchia, in Columbus’s Brewery District, rather than in our home. His friends wanted to organize a bigger event, with invites on Facebook.
Although it would break with tradition, we held the newly-christened “Gathering of Gratitude” two weekends before official T-day, leaving us free over the holiday weekend to enjoy our daughter, and our son home from college.
In the week before I visited my mother, so I had nothing to do with the organization. Paolo took care of the invitations with his friends, cleaned the winery, and set up the tables. When I returned, I made a turkey, cranberry sauce, and two pies, in case everyone brought hummus and chips.
Our Gathering of Gratitude carried on the tradition of giving thanks. After saying grace, eighty people passed the tray of tea-lights along the tables, each person lighting a candle. Following dinner, we stood together in a circle of forgiveness and gratitude. Then we had a dance party to shake off the calories. Several people brought guitars, and took to the stage in turns to sing their songs. From a gathering of four lonely émigrés, we’d grown to 80 folks who shared hugs and smiles and great food.
This year we are back to the four of us. With our son and daughter away at college, the few days we have together seems extremely precious. I’m loading up the larder for four days of eating, movies, games and walks, ready to capture every moment with them before they head back to their campus housing.
Thanksgiving celebrations wax and wane. But always there will be candles on the table and grateful hearts.
Rosi’s The LightCatcher is an Official Selection winner in psychological suspense novels for the New Apple Book Awards.