Today, we had Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant because of this very issue.
There was a time when so many of us lived on Long Island together that we had a packed house for every holiday. A typical noisy, chaotic, Italian, Long Island holiday.
When I was little, it was Nana’s house for Thanksgiving. A long table was set up in the living room with everyone crammed around it. Grandpa carved the turkey after we carried out our tradition of naming it. (I guess we liked to be on a first-name basis with our turkeys before we ate them?) While waiting to eat, my sisters and I would go in the bedroom to play with the only toys Nana had there – the Dark Shadows board game or the Christie doll, where you could pull out her blonde hair and make it grow – or twist a knob in her back to pull it back up. As we got older, the Thanksgiving baton was passed to my parents.
Growing up at our house, it was a big Italian Thanksgiving – with a turkey AND an Italian dish [insert your pasta of choice here] and always Grandma’s pizza. We always had anti-pasta along with the usual Thanksgiving fixings, and typically we were all stuffed by the time the turkey was served. Gorged ourselves like the Romans.
It was sort of a running joke in our house that we were always taking in the ‘strays’ for the holidays, too – people who had no other place to go. My parents were good like that. If they knew of someone who was alone, there was always an extra seat at our house. We never really knew who was going to show up, but it always ended up being this random, eclectic assortment of individuals – usually leaving us with these crazy stories we would laugh about (probably inappropriately) later – and for years after. No joke. We still remember.
As our family grew – spouses, grandkids, nieces, nephews, cousins – and strays – a noisy, buffet-style dinner was the only thing that would work, with eating going on in the living room, the bedrooms, the deck, the basement and the kitchen counter – wherever one was lucky enough to find a space. It was always chaos: people were tripping over each other, kids were screaming and running around, the TV was blasting, we were shouting at Grandma so she could hear us, my aunt was telling her latest story at the highest decibel level, and the dogs were barking because my uncle rang the bell on the front door (and kept on ringing it), just to rile them up.
There was only one volume at our house during the holidays: loud.
We weren’t the Waltons or Norman Rockwell Americana with a serene family gathered around the table: fine China, everyone dressed in Sunday best, perfect smiles and perfectly behaved children. We didn’t go around the table and say what we were thankful for; we were lucky if we could get everyone quiet long enough to say grace. We didn’t have any sentimental and meaningful traditions; the only family tradition that was passed down was the morbid naming of the turkey.
We were all always wiped out by the end of the day, but there was a feeling of satisfied exhaustion after the last kisses goodbye were given (and yes, in an Italian family, you did not leave until you kissed EVERYONE goodbye).
When my sisters got married, holidays got shared so the burden wasn’t on my mom all the time. Sometimes we would go to their houses. Sometimes to my aunt and uncle’s house, who lived around the block. But most of the time, holidays ended up still being at home – my parents’ house.
As life happens, the way it usually does, little by little, my family slowly migrated off of Long Island, one by one – almost all to Florida. Most recently, my sister and my aunt, uncle and cousins (the ones from around the block) left this summer.
My parents are next.
They just sold their house a few weeks ago, and soon, they will be going the way of the rest of my family: off of Long Island, to Florida. This is their last holiday season in NY before they move.
Among other sad realities of their upcoming exodus, the main hub for holidays wasn’t an option this year.
Only one of my sisters is left on Long Island. Having two kids under 4-years old, she didn’t have it in her to host both Christmas and Thanksgiving this year. (And my house is too small.)
She took Christmas, and Thanksgiving was relegated to the Bonwit Inn.
And that’s how we ended up in a restaurant today.
It wasn’t that being in a restaurant was so terrible, although it was noisy, crowded, and a bit of a drive. It was why we were in a restaurant:
Because we don’t really have much family left here anymore.
It wasn’t that the noise in the restaurant bothered me so much; it’s that it wasn’t our noise – our laughter, chaos, and loud story-telling.
It wasn’t that the crowd bothered me; it’s that it wasn’t our crowd – our family, friends – and strays.
It wasn’t that the drive or traffic bothered me; it’s that we weren’t driving to a home – someplace familiar and special, someplace that is ours.
At the end of the day, it is the people around the table that matter most – it’s not the location. I get it.
But that’s the point – all the people that used to be here, that should have been here – weren’t.
I’d be lying if I said that, in some way, their absence didn’t put a little bit of a damper on our day. I think my parents, my sisters, my nephew, and even my little nieces were all thinking the same thing today. We were all missing at least someone around the table. Maybe everyone.
Families should be together. They just should.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I felt like today was the harbinger of holidays to come that will forever be different from the ones in all of our memories. Not terrible – just different. Next year, even my parents will be gone.
I know I can’t live in the past. I know life goes on, things change, people move apart. I know, I know, I know.
And I am grateful for what we had: the noise, the craziness, the chaos. The laughter. The joy.
I am grateful for my heritage and those memories. I am grateful for it all.
It just stinks when families split up.
[Photo Credit: Pinterest, original source unavailable]