Pandemic pauses family traditions, not thanks

Thanksgiving 2018

Every August, as predictable as summer fruit ripening, my three eldest sons begin to announce, “I’m really looking forward to Thanksgiving.”

For more than 20 years, we’ve made the 450-mile journey to Charlevoix, Michigan, for the November holiday. My stepmother has lived in the same 950-square-foot house near Lake Michigan since 1972. She and her husband (not my father) are my big boys’ only grandparents.

After my first three boys grew adult-sized and I had two more children with their stepfather, Max, we found it necessary to caravan north in two vehicles. For five years, when my eldest son, Claude, studied at the University of Michigan, his brothers picked him up in Ann Arbor, and they’d have a mini-reunion in the car.

Though we always reconvene at Christmas, it is Thanksgiving that our family most enjoys. Free of gift-giving pressure, and not tied to a specific religion, it has a simple requirement: eat well and often while enjoying each other’s company — a comfortable perch for gratitude.

Last year, we did not go home for Thanksgiving, but in everyone’s mind, it didn’t count.

Hugo gave his senior recital at Eastman School of Music the Saturday before the holiday and we were all there, including Grandma. She flew to Rochester and then rode with us to Akron where she stayed for a few days. Same show, different station.

Now in 2020, we, like everyone, regularly make plans — whether to take trips, go to school or buy more toilet paper — only to find it necessary to adjust them.

The neighbor’s home in Charlevoix, where for many years we’ve stayed over the Thanksgiving weekend, is no longer available. Last summer when the kids and I were there, Barb, a good friend of 40 years, invited us to stay with her.

On a day with breezes blowing from the lake and boat horns regularly bellowing for the town’s draw bridge to open, Barb and I sat on her porch and planned the Thanksgiving our families would share this year. An artist of local note, Barb plotted out the tables and decor for the feast, which our family would happily provide.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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My second son, Hugo, who recently moved to Illinois with his girlfriend, bought a one-way plane ticket from Chicago to Dallas. Claude, who is in graduate school at Texas A&M, was to pick up Hugo at the airport and then they’d promptly begin driving home. On their way, they were to pick up their younger brother Jules in Columbus, where he’s a sophomore at Ohio State.

First to fall was Thanksgiving in Michigan. By the end of October, we all knew. The boys and I talked about it, Max and I talked about it and then, finally, my stepmom and I talked about it. With the pandemic spreading like a California wildfire, it would be irresponsible for us, coming from three states, to visit the grandparents.

Then, two weeks ago, Hugo called and told me he wasn’t going to fly to Dallas. Illinois may soon enact a travel ban, and he and Claudia, who was going to drive here to join us, didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Akron.

With several podcasts downloaded on his phone, Claude drove home over two days last weekend and will stay here until his classes resume in mid-January.

Finally, the Friday before Thanksgiving, Jules and I had the following text-message exchange:

“Hey, I’ll stay in Columbus over Thanksgiving.”

“Feels kinda like getting a text break up.”

“OMG, but I think we both know this is for the better.”

Yes, we do. I was the one who had alerted Jules when Franklin County (where OSU is located) was declared purple, the worst possible COVID rating in the state’s color-coded health advisory alert system.

“Jules could have called you,” Claude said, “He’s going through some weird bro phase.”

I chuckled. We all go through phases, and what Claude calls Jules’ “bro phase” is far preferable than others I can think of. But yeah, he could’ve called.

Several weeks ago, Max and I ordered a fresh-killed turkey large enough to feed 10 with ample leftovers. We picked it up from Fresh Fork Market on Wednesday, but instead of brining the bird whole as we usually do, we quartered it.

On Thanksgiving Day we served only the breasts, which had been brined in buttermilk and salt. We’ve used the rest of the bird in soups and casseroles, some of which we’ve frozen.

No, our favorite holiday was not the same this year with our family scattered hither and thither. But my feelings of gratitude are, in fact, significant. I’m grateful we are all healthy, that none of us ignored science over minor inconveniences.

And, I suspect, after this pandemic-induced break in our annual tradition, future Thanksgivings will be more savory than ever.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on 11/29/2020.


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