Tradition and Change at Thanksgiving

thanksgivingM[y mother and my mother-in-law are both coming to Thanksgiving at our house. So is my sister-in-law. And my daughter.

Three generations at Thanksgiving is an American tradition, immortalized in Norman Rockwell paintings and millions of family photos. But it used to be easier to bring the generations together at the Thanksgiving table than it is now. In the middle of the 20th century, about one quarter of Americans lived in multi-generational households, but that proportion has been shrinking since then. The geographic movement of Americans west and south, both in retirement and for employment, has spread many families across the continent. Can the Thanksgiving tradition survive modern, highly mobile American life?

To put together this Thanksgiving gathering, my daughter is flying in from Massachusetts and my mother-in-law is driving from Minneapolis, with the help of her daughter. My mother used to live in California, but came to live here in Jacksonville when my father died. The geographical mobility of Americans across our vast continent makes such family gatherings more costly, difficult and rare.

When I grew up near New York City, both sets of my grandparents lived within a two-hour drive, and my cousins lived around the corner. Most of my extended family lived in the New York metropolitan area. Now we are spread across the country, making family gatherings for holidays less frequent.

Even though family holidays seem like unchanging traditions, in fact they evolve as the cast of characters changes. Children grow up and for a few years bring partners to the family meals. Eventually they make their declaration of independence and become the hosts, often blending traditions they like from their families of origin with new ideas. The oldest generation gives up its leading role to a middle-aged child, reserving the right to grumble when recipes are changed or new dishes are added.

Each Thanksgiving is unique. This time, we will miss the grandfathers. My father-in-law can no longer travel and rarely leaves his nursing home. My son will celebrate with his in-laws. My other sister-in-law hosts her own Thanksgiving for her children in Minneapolis.

So our table of six will be thankful for this occasion to celebrate together. My daughter will bring stories of her work, where she is taking on new challenges and responsibilities, discovering what she can do and what she needs to learn. My sister-in-law is preparing to return to apartment living, after 35 years of home ownership. My mother-in-law has gradually been getting used to living alone, taking courses at the local university, developing a new life. My mother has a new home at Jacksonville Skilled Nursing and new people who surround her.

My wife is thinking about working for a new boss, as Illinois College makes the transition to its 14th president. I am about to teach for the last time a course I have taught a dozen times before, as my career in academia approaches its end.

Maybe because it happens slowly, we don’t notice how often we must re-create our habits, our daily routines. Jobs change, neighbors move, and the great events of family life add and subtract loved ones from our lives.

Steve HochstadtWe all have much to wonder about. The future is unpredictable. Maybe that’s why we cherish the familiarity of Thanksgiving dinners. I’ll be happy to see the creamed onions and the homemade cranberry sauce. I’ll be even happier to hear what my family says, as we go around the table, telling each other what we are thankful for. In the midst of constant change, the love of family is something we can rely on.

Like turkey and stuffing.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Posted: Tuesday, 20 N0vember 2012


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Steve, I’m so sorry to break the news. Tofurkey, maybe, but not turkey.

    Precisely because – as you point out – life changes and we keep adapting to new realities and new knowledge (i.e. perception of realities). Nineteen years ago I became vegetarian, three years ago vegan. Now, thanks to the Prop 37 campaign here in California, I try to go as much as possible organic, or at least non-GMO.

    What so far has not changed is family ties. But, as you say, they get hard to maintain in person, because people die or move. Raised in northern California, I am the last of my immediate family to be in this state – and even I have moved 400 miles to southern California. My parents have passed, my dear wife was snatched by cancer, my sister and brother (and spouses) each moved to the east coast to be near where their children too had gone, and my son lately got an infotech job in Austin, TX.

    Of course email and telephony make it easier than ever to stay remotely in contact. On the other hand, physical rendezvous is going to get ever more rare as – fitfully – the climate-stressed world begins to understand that we can’t afford to burn much more oil just to fly lots of airplanes around.

    Thank you for your message. I do agree – what abides is the love of family and close friends. I am very thankful for those.

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