December 4, 2013


It’s only a few days after Thanksgiving, but you might not even know it existed. One of the most overlooked holidays around. Christmas is modern and speedy, with huge to-do lists, and lots of spending. It forgets that it was based on the bonding of a brand-new family a couple of thousand years ago. Thanksgiving celebrates family, not feasting, and is quietly old-fashioned, by loving hands. Most of us have good memories of our Thanksgiving meals, when family and friends gathered and shared each other’s bounty.

When I was little the holidays were at our house, where a great many relatives showed up for the occasion. Since in those days my parents’ friends were either Mr. or Mrs. or had a courtesy title of uncle or aunt, I never did figure out our relationship to many of these and still don’t know where many of them belonged on the family tree. It didn’t matter. Without the distraction of Christmas presents, we children paid attention to the family talk—at least after we were old enough to sit with the grown-ups. We didn’t learn much, but we gained a sense of our extended family, beyond the four of us usually at home.

Over the years the family waxed and waned. War intervened, but I don’t remember Thanksgiving being any less festive. Then I went off to college, spent Thanksgivings with friends who lived nearer to campus, met a local guy, and married into a new family with their own traditions.

As newlyweds, we always had the dinner with my husband’s family. His mother was a marvelous cook. Relatives came, the best linens were brought out, we used the prized Art Deco china bought early in their marriage, and the table was always beautifully set and stocked. Listening to the chatter, I learned the ins and outs of my new family.

Although I was used to the washing up after meals at home, I hadn’t realized how much information could be shared over the kitchen sink. That was when I really learned to know and value my mother-in-law as our hands kept busy. She washed, I rinsed and wiped, and we chatted with no interruptions from the menfolk who were occupied with the football games in the living room.

When we started making friends and doing things with other couples, washing up conversations were common among us young wives. After a potluck meal, we gals gathered in the kitchen, cleaning up and chatting about everything that interested us, and developing bonds to last a lifetime. As we entered into motherhood, with varied backgrounds but a common determination to do it right, we traded tips and stories and passed on the collective wisdom from the different communities and families we came from.

The dishwasher, marvelous invention that it is, effectively ended this type of casual bonding. But Thanksgiving has so much that a machine can’t handle: the Art Deco trims on the dinner plates, silver knives and crystal glasses, not to mention the large platters and pans that were brought out for the feasting. This past Thanksgiving my adult granddaughters and their mother and I bonded over some of the family china that now reside in my son’s house, while the girls chattered about one’s new job in Detroit, the other’s life as a new homeowner, and shared some of the memories they have taken with them from home. The conversation grew naturally while our hands were busy, and there was a closeness in that kitchen that is missing when we are all sitting together while engaged in games, or the television or the bulky holiday newspapers.

As a child I would have hooted if anyone suggested I would once be thankful for washing dishes. I remember how thrilled I was when we got our first dishwasher; I am still very thankful to have one. But, like so much else in life, there are trade-offs when the machines save energy but replace one of the little synapses that keep us human.

Let us all keep Thanksgiving as a family tradition. To use a new-fangled term, it’s bonding time.