Loco Parentis: Much Ado About Turkey

Our parenting columnist looks at holidays past and wonders: What happens when you really can’t go home again?

Marcy is moving out.

I’ve seen this day coming for a long time — planned for it, even. Abetted it. Paid big bucks to Educational Testing Service to speed it along. And now here my daughter is, a senior in high school, e-mailing her college applications with her fingers crossed.

We’ve spent the past year on a grand tour of academic institutions, peering at stained-glass windows in chapels, tiptoeing in libraries, wandering through field houses. We’ve scouted dorms, eaten in dining halls, sipped lattes in student centers, while Marcy tried to picture herself in each setting: Is this my new home? I can’t wait for her to go, for her sake. I can’t bear the thought of it, for mine.

"There’s e-mail," she says, nonplussed by my forlorn tales of once-a-week calls home from the communal dorm phone when I went away to school. "And instant messaging. I’ll send you pictures from my cell phone."

She doesn’t understand. My independence began the day my parents dropped me off at my college dormitory. Four years later, I had changed so much. Done so much. I never really did go home again, not in the same way.

"I promise, wherever I end up, I’ll come home for Thanksgiving," Marcy tells me blithely — the traditional first-rite-of-return. I know how that goes. She’ll show up for the big high-school football game, her haircut different, her makeup more subtle, her mien so much more worldly. And the new crop of seniors will stare, taking her in, picturing themselves in her (chic, hip) shoes. "It will be just like always," she tries to reassure me.

I know better. It will be another seismic shift in what used to be immutable: the holidays.

ANY DAY NOW, THE e-mails will start zinging between my siblings and me. The original header will read "Thanksgiving?" And the "Re: Thanksgiving?" responses will spool out further and further as we execute the complex, protracted set of negotiations that our family celebrations have become. Among us, we have traditionalists who cringe at even the suggestion of a menu variation; daring souls who fearlessly tote along unknown-to-the-rest-of-us acquaintances; offspring who insist on bringing boyfriends or girlfriends; in-laws whose mobility, eyesight and/or hearing are severely compromised; and me, utterly unselfish, wanting only for everyone to be happy and to have things exactly my way.

It wasn’t always like this. When our kids were younger, my husband Doug and I would take them to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I was glad to trade a Thursday of too much food and football for spending the real holiday (the one with trees and presents) with my side of the family. Besides, the in-laws lived in a hamlet in the mountains called Gobbler’s Hollow, out in western PA. So we really did go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, and it was good. But then Grandma and Grandpa sold the homestead and moved to an adult-living community with only a ­postage-stamp yard, knocking out such cherished holiday customs as sighting in rifles for deer season and smacking copperheads to death with shovels. The loss was felt.

For a couple of years, we brought Grandma and Grandpa to my dad’s for the big turkey dinner with my siblings. But there weren’t nearly enough places at Pop’s dining room table, even with the card table added on. So I tried roasting my own turkey, in my own kitchen, for just Doug (who doesn’t have any siblings) and the kids and Grandma and Grandpa and me. This was viewed by my brother and sisters as a secession from the union, and possibly an act of war. I would have been in real trouble if my dad hadn’t up and moved to an adult community himself. In the general upheaval, the Thanksgiving question was subsumed by a far more urgent problem: What to do about Christmas Eve?

The Eve is sacrosanct. The Eve is The Big One. The Eve is when generations of Hingstons from near and far have always, always gathered at my dad’s house for a big night of cookie-eating, carol-singing and one-upsmanship.

And now there wasn’t any house to go to, just a one-bedroom-with-den in what seemed, considering our Christmas plight, to be the mockingly named Pine Run. The family home — our family home — had another family in it. Without that wood-and-stone temple, what would become of our tribe?

THIS PAST SUMMER, DOUG and I drove with the kids to Nags Head for a week’s vacation. All down Route 158 along the Outer Banks, you see old farmhouses, brick mostly, sometimes clapboard, surrounded by fields of soybeans and peach trees. And often, on a patch of land close by the highway, there’s a burial plot, eight or 10 worn headstones marked off by a white fence. As we passed these mini graveyards, I’d crane in my seat, wondering what it would be like to gaze out from your living room window and see your forefathers every blessed day.

Folks in Gobbler’s Hollow know. People there are connected to the land in a way that is unfamiliar to me. They have names for every rivulet and hillock and knoll; their coonhounds go back 10 generations. Doug’s great-great-great-great-greats set out from those mountains to fight the Revolutionary War.

My ancestors were newbies in comparison. Whatever ties they’d had to the country part of Old Country, when they got here, they became city folk: ladies’ maids and seamstresses and firemen and shoemakers. They rented houses, moved, bought, traded up, viewing land merely as something to grow grass on and drive horseshoe stakes into. Their allegiances were to parishes, baseball teams, taprooms, political parties. They buried their dead in cemeteries a long way from home, out where land wasn’t so dear.

When Doug and I were first married, I saw his family as the Waltons. On visits to Great-Uncle Fred at the ancestral farm, the houses of his children and grandchildren were within eyesight, just across the fishing hole. It was like the Kennedy compound, only with no money. Sitting down under a pure blue sky for a summer picnic of fried chicken and baked beans and lemonade, I was utterly seduced. I wanted to move to the mountains, learn to drive a tractor, milk cows, shear sheep. But it didn’t take long to see how complicated life with that sort of extended family would be. Consider the intricate relationship you have with your next-door neighbor. You don’t stop and shoot the breeze every time you’re both outside. Sometimes you just say hey, sometimes you exchange quick comments on the weather, and once in a while — every seventh or eighth or 10th time, maybe, that you cross paths — you take it one step more, pause at the fence, lean on the mower handle, talk about a troubled child or an ailing parent or a cousin in Iraq.

Now imagine that all your neighbors are relatives. Imagine that they actually know the people you’re talking about, and that rather than just nodding politely and saying tsk-tsk, they have opinions on what’s best for that child or parent or cousin — opinions that may run completely counter to yours. How awful would that be?

The Waltons were plainspoken folk, blunt and honest, but they were made for TV. Real relations living cheek-to-jowl like that are more guarded, less likely to speak frankly, to unload and share. There’s a lot that goes unspoken up on the mountain — that has to, if everyone is to get along. When you live on the mountain, Aunt Bessie is a mite eccentric; Uncle Joel sure does enjoy his liquor. Come down from the mountain, and you recognize what proximity demanded you gloss over: Aunt Bessie has some serious mental issues, and Uncle Joel’s a drunk. My kids don’t have the connections to the land they’d have if they’d grown up in Gobbler’s Hollow. But I like to think they’ve got more perspective. They feel free to question relatives’ questionable behavior, and they don’t think they’re part of an invincible monolith, the way some Kennedys do. Understanding your family is like going to the movies. If you sit in the first row, it’s hard to tell what’s right there in front of you. It’s always wise to move back a ways.

Though you do need to see the relatives, even if it’s only at the holidays.

THE FIRST YEAR AFTER my dad sold his house, my cousin Kathy stepped in and rescued Christmas Eve, hosting it at her rowhome in Fairmount. The second year, last year, she sent an apologetic e-mail saying she ­really wasn’t up to it again. I offered our place, thinking how nice it would be not to have to schlepp the kids and the in-laws and the Swedish meatballs and the cookies anywhere on the night before Christmas — to just clean house and kick back and wait for everyone to come to me.

"What are we doing for Christmas Eve this year?" Marcy asked in early December.

"I invited everybody here," I told her.

"No!" she wailed. I stared at her in astonishment. "That’s not Christmas Eve," she explained. "On Christmas Eve, you pack up the car with cookies and Swedish meatballs and you drive somewhere."

In the end, Cousin Kathy came through again last Christmas Eve. But my dad isn’t ready to relinquish his patriarchal rights, even if he lacks a homestead. Way back in January, he talked to the folks at Pine Run about renting a common room there for this year’s big family get-together. They couldn’t help him out on the actual Eve, they explained, because of staffing issues. But they could do the night before Christmas Eve — the Eve’s eve, so to speak. Oh, and we’d have to use their caterer; we couldn’t bring our own food.

"We always have Swedish meatballs," Pop told them.

"We can make Swedish meatballs," they assured him.

It would be Christmas Eve. But it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve.

"What about caroling?" my son Jake wanted to know when he heard the proposal.

"Everybody in this joint," said Pop, "is in bed by 7 p.m."

No one is happy with the common-room Christmas Eve plan, and that may be why it will work. So long as we’re in limbo at Pine Run, there’s no clear anointing of a successor to Pop, no permanent passing of the hospitality baton, just another year of cobbled-­together, not-like-the-old-days Eve.

And that’s okay. We’re willing to consider a strange room, and a stranger’s Swedish meatballs, because it’s better than contemplating the next step: Christmas without Pop. Pop’s afraid. Not so much of dying; he’s ready for that. He’s afraid of what his death will mean for the family, united not by any homestead on the mountain, but only by memories. Those who gather for the Eve knew my mom, my dad’s dad and mom, all the dead who lie in far-off graveyards. We are entangled in the sea kelp of one another’s first loves and first cousins and first wives. But if we don’t maintain contact, if we don’t gather at least once a year and sing, and eat, and feed the collective memory — if we don’t talk about Great-Aunt Laura’s pound cake and Great-Uncle John’s golf game — we’ll slip away to new rituals and traditions, and what becomes of John and Laura then?

Our family tree is weighted down by the newer branches; the main stem has thinned out. I and my siblings and cousins are becoming the elders I remember from my own childhood, gray-haired and stout and talking of mutual funds. Our children move on, starting satellite cells: in New York, New Mexico, Belgium, for God’s sake.

And our parents are now those frail, dim figures at the fringes of one’s childhood memories, leaning on canes, nodding off on the sofa after dinner, mumbling the words to Christmas carols. If you watched this relentless cycle of birth and youth and middle years and old age by yourself, in solitude, your heart would break with the inevitability of loss.

And so we have family, loving buffers, to provide the long view, to ease the transition we, too, will be making. It seems all too soon, from this perspective. I wonder what death will seem like when I am old.

"I CAN’T WAIT TO GO to college," Marcy declares, home from a bad day at high school. It’s her new mantra. College is Shangri-la, paradise, the shining city on the hill. College will heal all — and you know, at those prices, it should. College is, in fact, a lot like a family holiday: something you look forward to with such high hopes, only to realize, not long into it, that your expectations way exceeded the reality.

Will Marcy come home next Thanksgiving? And 30 years from now, when I’m my father’s age, will she and Jake still share their turkey? My dad had six siblings. I have three. Marcy and Jake only have each other. If either of them doesn’t show up, so much for a "family" holiday.

At Nags Head this summer, on a deserted beach, I watched for hours as the two of them stood side by side in the sea and faced the thunderous waves, laughing, braced for whatever might come. It’s what I want them to go on doing forever. That’s why we gather together, my siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles, even in an anonymous common room in an old folks’ home, even when the food and the date aren’t right: to say to our children, This is what family is. This is what family does. The rituals change; the guest list shuffles and expands. The venue matters less than I once thought it did. Loved ones pass away. New loved ones are born. Time turns out to be less a straight line and more like a wheel.

We come together. We eat some Swedish meatballs. And we learn to give thanks, not for what was, or what may be, but for what we have now.