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Table Talk

My family's turkey day was all about the stories



Every year around this time, I start thinking about my family's Thanksgiving tradition. Problem is, we don't have one.

Five years into parenthood, my partner, Ann-Elise, and I still haven't figured out how to spend the holiday with our two kids. One year we cow-sat for friends in Fairfield, and roasted a Tofurky at their place. The next year, we spent the day with our kids' sperm donor and his family. Talk about being thankful.

Each of these celebrations had its own charm, but lately I've been longing for a Thanksgiving ritual like the one I knew growing up. Like most kids, I didn't fully appreciate it at the time.

My childhood Thanksgivings in suburban Detroit were practically indistinguishable from one another. My parents, my sister and I would spend the day with my dad's relatives — his parents and grandparents, before they died, and his three siblings and their families, which often included their in-laws. Most of them knew each other from the days when they lived in the same east-side Detroit neighborhood.

We took turns hosting the meal; every year, one of our houses would be full-to-bursting with my big, boisterous Polish family.

The location changed, but the food and the schedule were always the same. We had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, Mom's broccoli casserole and Aunt Joanne's pumpkin pie. There was always at least one television showing a football game — usually featuring the Detroit Lions, who usually lost. After dinner, the adults would clear the dishes and play pinochle or euchre.

And every year they'd tell the same stories, as if none of us had ever heard them before. Maybe it was the leisurely meal that loosened their tongues. Or maybe it was the copious amounts of alcohol.

"Hey Cath," my Uncle Ken would inevitably say. "Remember the time you, your dad and me went fishing in Lake St. Clair in my 16-footer, and that storm came up, and we were coming home hitting four-foot waves? You were about 6 years old, and you were shouting, 'We're gonna die! We're gonna drown!' And I sez, 'Cathy, shut up. Mike, shut her up.' Remember that?"

As if I could forget. Not only was it a memorable experience; he literally brought it up every single year.

As the night wore on, they'd talk about the old neighborhood. We'd hear about Uncle Ken and the time he and one of the Kovalczek brothers made a bunch of little kids crawl across four-lane French Road. Then there was the time Uncle Jim pushed Aunt Carol off the porch, and she broke her arm. That's how she remembers it, anyway.

The later it got, the more animated they all became. My dad and my uncles are big guys; all of them are at least six feet tall. Sometimes they'd throw their whole bodies into a story, but often it was just their faces — their eyes widening dramatically at a certain point, their heads shaking vigorously when they corrected one another: "No, no, that's not how it went."

My dad would deliver punch lines out of the side of his mouth, a habit of his when he really gets going. He'd tell us the one about his great uncle, a Roman Catholic priest named Father Mike, who got pulled over for speeding while driving Dad and some friends up north. Turns out Father and the rural cop had a mutual acquaintance, something that's a lot less common in Michigan than it is in Vermont.

"He talked his way out of a ticket!" my dad would quip, year after year after year.

If Dad was in a good mood — i.e., not losing at cards — we kids might press him to tell us about the time he went to a blind pig, an illegal nightclub, and saw a gun sitting on a table. That story glimpsing the city's seedy underbelly thrilled me every time I heard it.

But it's not something I hear often anymore. Those sprawling, Resmer-family Thanksgivings are over. Uncle Bill, my Aunt Carol's husband, died in 2009. And I'm not the only one who left town. I still have family outside of Detroit, but my parents, my sister, and my Uncle Jim and Aunt Joanne all live in North Carolina, near my mom's family, and my cousins are scattered from Illinois to Colorado to California. We see each other at weddings and funerals, if then.

Growing up, I loved my family, but I always knew I'd hit the road when it was time to go to college. I couldn't face a life of those predictable gatherings.

And now, of course, I miss them. They grounded me in who I am and where I came from. How can I give my own kids that same foundation when we live so far away from family?

Maybe this year, after we've cut into our free-range, locally raised, organic turkey, I'll tell them the story of the time Uncle Ken took me fishing. They've heard it already, but it bears repeating.

"Use Your Words" is a monthly essay in which writers reflect on parenting and childhood.

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