Commentary: Each Thanksgiving has a renewal of traditions
BOSTON -- We are taking my grandmother's china out for a spin. The plates, cups and saucers, wrapped carefully like ancient artifacts, will make their annual pilgrimage one doorway and one generation down the street from my aunt's house to my own.
On Thanksgiving, four generations will eat off the dishes of a fifth, although this year the people finally outnumber the place settings and the youngest quartet will be safely relegated to plastic plates and sippy cups.
I am not a china kind of hostess, but I was awarded temporary custody of these dishes when I inherited Thanksgiving. To have the holiday without my grandmother's china would seem more disrespectful to her memory than the blasphemy we already commit when we put her plates in our dishwasher.
It is remarkable how we attach memory and meaning to mere stuff. And which stuff? Why is it that my grandmother's dishes remain from the rich inventory of her life?
Last August, Hurricane Katrina drove people from their homes with barely enough time to cull a backpack of goods from a lifetime of possessions. From my safe, dry perch I wondered exactly how I would fill such a grab bag. With photographs? Letters? What else?
But at some point we all have to decide how to triage our memories. Or have others decide for us.
Since last Thanksgiving, my mother's life has been downsized to a single room. Over time, as she went from house to apartment to assisted living, we had repeatedly strip-searched her rooms for what mattered most to take along. But when the flood waters of old age and ill health rose dangerously in her own life, she was rescued to a room now decorated with photographs, a 90th-birthday book and a single bureau.
The home that this homemaker created with as much care and flair as a set designer has gone into its own diaspora. A buffet was sent to one granddaughter, wing chairs to a nephew. Two of the dining chairs that I sat on as a child will be pulled up to my own table this holiday. But things that we had neither space nor taste for went to a hospice and a consignment shop. It's only stuff, we said to each other. The stuff of stories and lives.
Have you ever seen photo albums in an antique store or flea market and wondered how they ended up in this orphanage? Didn't anybody want them, know them anymore? Can we, on the other hand, get laden down with too much history?
In the shadow of all this, my husband and I have been rummaging through our storage room, triaging what stays and what goes. There is a box of letters from my father to a war buddy. Will I be the last generation that hears his voice in the typewritten words? There are the soup pots, also my grandmother's legacy, known only to me. There is the eccentric jeweled pin that so reminds me -- but only me -- of my great-aunt Polly.
How much should we save for our kids? How much should we saddle them with?
In some ways every generation balances the pleasure of traditions, legacies, roots, with the equally American appeal of a fresh start. I wonder how much stuff, and stories, our children can carry with them to their own table and still have room for the new. How much, on the other hand, do restless people long for their connection to the past?
Only a handful at our table -- six of the 26 -- actually knew my grandmother. The others know the condensed version: the lobster-lover, the cleaning fanatic. As for my father, who married my mother one Thanksgiving long ago, his wit and generosity of spirit have been inevitably condensed to a box of letters, a litany of family stories, a collection of photographs and a campaign poster from his political adventures.
We pare down and salvage, attach stories to a teacup and forget sometimes the complexity of an individual. Our own histories will someday have to squeeze into a portfolio as small and portable as a DVD.
Still, every Thanksgiving when the china seems to unite a family as fond and diverse as the mix-and-match silverware, I tip my hat to tradition. I make room for the extra table we bought for the newest members of our tribe, the ones on booster seats and in high chairs.
As I count out their plastic plates and sippy cups, I am allowed to believe that the small people who cut their teeth on family traditions this year will one day cut their turkey on bone china. White, of course, with a slim gold rim.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.