It used to be that my brother would step on the scale before and after Thanksgiving dinner to see how many pounds he’d gained in one sitting. While I’d never dream of doing the same, we all got a good laugh. One year he tipped the scale to an excess of seven newly packed-on pounds – a record. We chalked it up to a particularly tasty Thanksgiving, one where my mom had cooked not only the turkey but also her traditional side of sweet potatoes and cranberries, homemade stuffing, gravy, buttered carrots, any number of sweetbreads, and of course, her signature pumpkin pie.When we were young, we’d try to circle around the table, everyone saying what they were thankful for, before someone snuck a piece of turkey. There were homemade place cards, placemats, and some years lopsided construction paper turkeys. Eventually childhood enthusiasms gave way to a new tradition of the Turkey Trot run; my dad and brother would brave the frigid Wisconsin temperatures to pound out three and a half miles before dinner. Later, when my brother and I left for college and I stayed out East, our family Thanksgivings spent around the table together became less and less frequent. More often than not, the phone was our welcome connector across the miles.
The past few years, I’ve tried to emulate some of our traditions within my own family. I make my mom’s sweet potato/cranberry recipe; our family watches the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade; one year my son and I cut out construction paper turkeys, the imprints of our hands decorated with colorful feathers. The fact that he pronounced to his dad that he’d just finished making his “chicken” did little to dull my spirits.But this year, like last, there will be someone missing around our proverbial table: my dad. And while I know the passing of a year should make a difference, know that the actual Thanksgivings I spent with him had grown few and far between, it doesn’t make his absence any less felt. It’s something that I know more than a few friends have had to struggle with in recent years, this realizing that we’ve come of an age where no one, not even our parents, is invincible. A reluctant recognition that the shape of family changes, even if those for whom we’re grateful does not.
My dad would have been the first to remind us how lucky we are, how much we have to be thankful for. He was an easy mark for any charity, always willing to lend a few extra dollars. I can’t count how many times an old-fashioned letter would arrive in the mail from him, penned on a piece of complimentary stationery he’d received for his donation to the Salvation Army, Unicef, a local food bank. He could find many problems with the world, but really, his heart was made of gold.I suspect this year, when it came to his turn at the table, he would have said he was grateful for our family, small and large, for the blessings of the food before us, the roof over our heads, the kindness of friends. It was the little things. He would have made a comment about how glad he was to have Obama in the White House but would have asked God to help our President help those who need it most.
And when I look around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, hosted by my in-laws in the historic town of Plymouth, I’ll surely think of my whole family and all that I’m grateful for. But most especially, I’ll think of my dad and how the holiday this year is both heavier and lighter because of him. I won't need the scale to tell me.