Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. Growing up my family would travel from Chicago to Tucson where my Dad’s extended family gathered around my Great Aunt Liz’s home to spend the holiday. I have such vivid memories of pulling through her gravel driveway once we arrived and walking straight through her back door where the smell of warm pecan and pumpkin pies welcomed us, signaling that Thanksgiving preparations were well underway.
Liz, the matriarch of our family – hosted upwards of fifty people each year over the course of four days. She made it all look effortless, her techniques and traditions perfected over decades and eventually passed on to future generations. Liz knew exactly what should and could be prepared in advance and then how to delegate tasks to each and every member of our family so we all felt like we were contributing. The prized role as a child was being responsible for ringing the dinner bell once the meal was served and something I looked forward to.
The days were spent gathered in her kitchen as family continually flowed in and out. Gorging on food and then off for a 6 mile run or hike through Sabino Canyon. My Dad’s side of the family rarely does anything in moderation. I tried to never stray too far from the kitchen, the real heart of the operation as I was afraid I’d miss stories and precious gossip. Our Thanksgiving tradition continued through most of my childhood. Even though we gathered as an extended family only once a year, I grew up feeling as close to this side of my family as I did to those I saw everyday back in Chicago.
Liz lived to be over 100 and as she grew older, obligations to my Mom’s aging parents back in Chicago kept us there for Thanksgiving. We started hosting our own more modest Thanksgiving where I grew up. Our table was often filled with visiting friends from college making it feel like a lively and festive affair. The holiday always made us all feel so thankful and blessed for the incredibly close family we have. I also now associate Thanksgiving with the tragic news we received eight years ago that my mom had stage four cancer. She lived for fifteen months after her diagnosis, her last Thanksgiving was spent with my own family in New York City a week after my daughter was born. My mom had miraculously traveled from Chicago to NYC to witness the birth of my daughter and Thanksgiving was the last holiday we had with her.
Fast forward eight years: We are all back in Chicago – our third year into a brand new Thanksgiving tradition but one that I have come to embrace and love all the same. Three years ago over Thanksgiving, my dad remarried a wonderful woman with three kids of her own. Together they’ve created a beautiful and welcoming home where all six of their children and now grandchildren return to every year for a truly blended family Thanksgiving. I admit looking around the dinner table I still feel shockwaves at how much has changed in our lives. But I also look at how much has been added, my husband, two kids of our own, a new sister and brother in-law, a new niece and no doubt more on the way, and now a stepmom, step siblings and their significant others. We have new traditions too – pizza night (Lou Malnati’s!) and our Thanksgiving menu has also adapted to our new family – my father insists on serving Mac n’ Cheese which Aunt Liz would hardly have approved of but our new normal has made room for so much new and unexpected love. Our Thanksgiving will now always mark the anniversary of my dad and stepmom – reminding us that change can also be good.
I’ve included recipes below of some of our new (un)traditional food for Thanksgiving: