On our first Thanksgiving in West Texas many years ago, our older children were six and two years old. We were new in town, new to our church, and far away from our families. I had made a traditional meal with turkey and all the fixings and set the table. As we sat down to enjoy dinner and each other’s company, an ice cream truck drove through our neighborhood.
Tears filled my eyes. That merry chiming music was so foreign to my expectations of what the holiday should be that it didn’t seem like Thanksgiving at all.
We were so far from our Michigan homes. So far from our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We were adrift, far away from everyone and everything we knew and loved. Despite our efforts to give our children a Thanksgiving like we had grown up enjoying, I knew we had failed.
Eventually, West Texas became home. A few years later we moved to Indiana, and then Kentucky, and then Kansas. We made each one of those places into our home. We made new traditions. We added two more children and a lot more friends.
But we never forgot what that first Thanksgiving in Texas was like.
When we made our final move (that we know of) to South Dakota more than ten years ago, my husband and I made a decision. No one else should have a Thanksgiving like we had experienced in those early years. As long as we were able, we would be family to those who found themselves without family on that special holiday.
Starting that year, we began to invite people to share Thanksgiving with us - anyone from our church or neighborhood who couldn’t have a traditional Thanksgiving with their own families for whatever reason. Since we live near a military base, we often include young families who are stationed in the remote Upper Mid-West. We also invite older folks whose families are grown. We invite single people, college students, and others without families nearby. We have added a son-in-law, two daughters-in-law, and sometimes their parents join us.
We’ve had as few as eight people for dinner, and as many as twenty-four.
We fix the turkey, ham, dressing, and mashed potatoes with gravy, and our extended “family” brings the rest of the meal. We never know exactly what will be on the menu. I keep a list, but I only know that one person is bringing a dessert, another a vegetable casserole, another a salad. I do know that no one goes hungry!
We stretch the table, much as my grandmothers did when I was a child, by putting in all the leaves and setting up folding tables at the far end. Mismatched tablecloths bring everything together, and a simple centerpiece makes it all festive.
The kitchen island works perfectly for a buffet, but before we all help ourselves to the food, we sing a hymn and either my husband or our pastor prays the blessing over the meal.
After dinner we stack the plates, take down the folding tables, set the chairs in a circle and bring out the toys. While the little ones play, the adults sit and visit – just like when I was a child. We leave the pies and cakes on the table, along with fresh plates and forks. Folks can nibble or have second helpings as they want to.
Toward four o’clock, families begin to say their farewells. We divide the leftover food into containers so everyone has plenty of variety to take home. Children find their hats and coats, and everyone makes their way home in the light of the setting sun.
How important has this tradition become?
A couple years ago, my husband and I decided to move from the city into the Black Hills now that he is retired and our children have all moved out of the house. I know our realtor wondered about us when at every house we toured, we would ask each other, “Could we have Thanksgiving here?” For some of the houses we looked at, that was the make-it-or-break-it question.
But we did find our dream home, and yes, it does have enough space for our Thanksgivings. We had twenty-one for dinner the first year and enjoyed every minute. The new house fit everyone in, and we still had room for more.
Even though we still live far away from the families that fill our memories, every year we make new memories with our new family. Who knows? Maybe you’ll join us one year!