We used to spend Thanksgivings on the farm. The idyllic, iconic American experience. Mamaw would meet us at the door with hugs and, laughing, draw us into the small-but-always-sparkling clean house. She spent days shopping and chopping, and woke before dawn to start the turkey.
On the farm, ‘before dawn’ is not exactly a big deal. That’s every day real life. Still, those early sounds of her stirring before the sun were the signal that some epic food action was about to go down in that kitchen. But of course, first there would be breakfast. And I mean, REAL breakfast. Gravy, sausage, homemade strawberry jam. That was kind of the primer for the late lunch/early supper that was coming later. Dinner would involve, among other things, three different pans of stuffing: one with everything; one with no onions for me and my uncle Paul; one with no giblets, for the people grossed out by giblets. All this, and the turkey, and the copious amount of sides including deviled eggs in a giant Tupperware container–because if you don’t have deviled eggs, is it really even Thanksgiving in Kentucky?–would somehow fit on the table that seated 6 adults. (The 4 kids were relegated to a card table in the den, as the good Lord intended).
As that turkey roasted to the perfection that only childhood memory can muster, I was spending hours outside with my cousins, playing on the tire swing and jumping in the hay bales. The barn smelled like tobacco and Novembers were warm. This is not a Norman Rockwell imprint on my psyche. It was my actual life.
You don’t know when you’re having the last one of those before life happens and people grow up, and everybody gets jobs and car payments and a set of in-laws. But at some point, all those dominoes started falling. Families changed; cousins got girlfriends; Thanksgiving migrated to my aunt’s house in Georgia; I married into a very large Catholic family where Thanksgiving was less an exercise in finding space for the deviled egg container and more a game of Twister to get everyone seated.
Then I moved. To Phoenix. We lived in three different places in 7 years there, transient in they way that Gen Xers are in general, and Arizona people are specifically.
Those years in Arizona, we had good friends from home living in Southern California. When you’re a Kentuckian in diaspora, the 5-hour plus drive across the desert seems like nothing at all, and so these friends would come to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with us. Those years involved the gradual introduction of babies (mine and theirs) and friends’ husbands, and an ever-expanding table of mostly vegetarian fare. The church I was serving at the time always had a big Thanksgiving meal the Sunday before, which meant turkey with an abundance of jello-dishes and store bought salads because– THIS JUST IN– Arizona people don’t cook like your Kentucky Mamaw. But they have their own virtues. For instance, those were the years I learned to put green chiles in everything. Seriously, corn pudding, cheese grits… whatever, it will change your life.
Somehow, even though ministry life means that holidays are the worst possible time to go ‘home,’ that desert was filled with all the goodness of family and belonging that a person could ask for. Maybe it’s because there was so much love in the scrappy little church made a pastor of me, a church that I miss with all my heart to this day. Maybe it’s because I had friends/chosen family who were willing to drive across the desert just to hold my babies and help cook, and enjoy pie-for-breakfast-Friday (my favorite, if self-appointed holiday).Or maybe it’s because home is not a place you go, but something you take with you.
In the desert years, that meant one thing. Our years in Kansas City, it meant something else: sometimes going to a friends’ house rather than burning up the road to Kentucky; other times, maybe a midnight run to the airport, in the snow, to pick up my mom. Sometimes we traveled, sometimes we set the table. The physical geography of our home address shifted as much as the landscape of our lives in that season. All told, in our first 15 years of marriage, my husband and I lived in 3 states: 3 Cities, 3 timezones, and (I’ve lost count but roughly) 9 different houses and apartments. It was nuts. But it sure was fun.
There may have been times I felt untethered; years I wished I could transport myself to a Rockwell-esque farm scene and whatever ‘home’ means when you’re missing it; times I wished that we had “a holiday tradition” that was just what we did every year, no matter what. But that lack and longing isn’t what I remember. I remember holidays from those transient years–Thanksgiving especially– as enforced sabbath time. A few days to breathe in the goodness of our current life situation, wherever that happened to be, and enjoy it with whatever friends and family we could scrape together. Wherever we were, and whoever was there, on any given year, was exactly what we needed at the time.
You never know when you’re having your last one of those before you move back home.
This year, we are back in Kentucky. Not in a city where we’ve ever lived before, but close enough to family that we had any number of holiday options. Of course, nothing is the same as it was, and few people are still where they were. Thanksgiving is tomorrow; we’ve already changed our Thanksgiving plans 3 times and I still can’t tell you for sure who-all will end up at my table tomorrow. But I know that, over the next five days, we will spend time and have meals with a hodgepodge of friends, family and neighbors, from all different phases of our lives; on different days, in different arrangements, and with different things on the table. Same as it ever was.
I also know this– when your tradition is no tradition, you always make it work, and it is always good.
Home, it turns out, is portable. Like the Derby pie I took to Thanksgiving potlucks in both Arizona and Kansas– because if you can believe it, there are folks living in those distant lands who have never thought to put bourbon and chocolate chips in their pecan pie– home can happen at any table where you happen to be, in any season, in any timezone.
Maybe home is just where your pie is.