For my husband, Chris, and me, 1987 was our first Thanksgiving together. We had rented a little house on 2nd Avenue, and with both sets of parents living far away, we decided to invite some friends and have our own Thanksgiving dinner.
We settled on serving turkey - Chris is a vegetarian, so this needed to be settled upon rather than assumed - and I learned how to cook one, or began the years-long process of learning to cook one. For someone who turns the oven on about five times a year, and then mainly to make brownies, this was a learning curve. And Chris was excused from helping, for obvious reasons.
Another handicap: little experience with large groups. When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was often just my mom, my dad and me. Once in a while a grandma from Denver would appear, or we’d dine with friends, but on the whole, Thanksgiving was a pretty sleepy affair.
In spite of this, my mom would work for days to make it nice: polishing silver, washing linens, picking up wine and fresh flowers, grocery shopping, cooking.
As an only child, I was fascinated with the idea of siblings, of having other kids around. When I was young, I’d watch the Waltons and just die, wishing for that huge dinner table with kids everywhere.
When Chris and I set about making our first guest list, we invited friends our own age, people in their 20s and early 30s. Some were single, some had young children. The group consisted of peace activists, college students, community radio people, environment types and folks from places like Holland and Nigeria who didn’t know what to make of Thanksgiving.
We told everyone that we’d do the turkey, stuffing and gravy and they should bring a side dish, a vegetarian main dish, or a dessert. We made “everyone’s invited” our motto and we vowed that no matter how big the crowd, everyone would eat on a real dish; no paper, no plastic. We bought and borrowed plates, linens, tables and chairs.
I was so nervous about the turkey. Thanksgiving morning, I opened the turkey package - there’s some repulsive stuff in there - and got the bird ready to put in the oven. I asked our friend Steven, who is a fine chef with the resume to prove it, to advise me. He even made a house call, unfortunately pronouncing the turkey done three and a half hours before the guests were to arrive.
One friend brought a made-from-scratch chocolate mousse. Our refrigerator was chock full and it was a snowy, cold Thanksgiving, so Chris nestled the mousse in the snow on a ledge in our back yard a good six feet off the ground. When time came for dessert, our friend went to get the mousse. She came back in, crestfallen, carrying the pan limply at her side.
As she opened her mouth to begin saying, “Your dog ate my mousse,” our dog, Bob Barker, came bounding past her. I swear he had a smile on his face. His entire head was covered in chocolate and he was jumping around, blissfully happy.
So our tradition of Thanksgiving dinners began. Part warm gathering of friends, part disaster. This formula has carried forward, more or less, for all these years. Once, Amanda, age 2, hauled off and slugged Elvis, who was 3, right in the face so hard that his mom packed him up and left for home during the meal. Amanda, now 17 and this year missing Thanksgiving at our house for the first time, says he deserved it. The pacifists pretended to be horrified but there was giggling.
Over the years, we usually had between 20 and 30 people. In all, we’ve probably had a hundred or more different guests since the beginning.
“Oh, sure,” we’d tell people, “bring your brother from Cleveland; everyone’s invited.” One year we accidentally invited all the neighbors; we had 47 that time. We’ve had a surprising number of friends die, considering our ages, and with lots of kids grown up and moved away, we’re down to around 15 or 20 lately.
One year, Chris calls it The Waltons Year, I wanted to put our tables end to end so we’d all be at one huge, long table. The table spanned 30 feet, from the front door to the refrigerator door, bisecting the house. No one could get anywhere.
Another time we did an extra meal for two friends, Jan and Dave, who had to catch a plane. What’s hosting a party twice in the same day weighed against dear friends who would have missed Thanksgiving dinner?
That’s what Thanksgiving is all about to me. Whether you’re the Waltons and you’re related to everyone at the table, or if you’ve constructed your family out of a bit of this and a bit of that like we have, you show your love by inviting people over for a meal and making it nice.
If everyone ends up drinking wine on the front lawn because the oven caught fire, it’s just all the more memorable. This Thursday at our house we’ll raise a glass to those who are gone and we’ll celebrate being together.
Everyone’s invited, so come on by.
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages. She lives in Salt Lake City.