CLEVELAND, Ohio – The traditions many of us celebrate each Thanksgiving with family and friends are the opportunity to gather with those we love, and revel in stories and recipes that bring laughter and fond memories of loved ones long departed.
Cleveland.com Editor Chris Quinn used his Subtext account to ask readers: “what are your warmest memories of Thanksgiving? Is it some recipe handed down for generations? Is it the traditions you’ve followed for eons? Was there one Thanksgiving, in particular, that you’ll never forget?”
For me, reading those questions brought back my father’s voice. Beginning with the first of November, he would loudly declare that “No one in this house had better not even think the word ‘Christmas’ until Santa rides down the street in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade!”
As you can imagine, gathering as a family to watch the parade on television was a big deal in our household. And I was stunned at just how clearly those words came to my mind and how they warmed my heart.
They had the same impact on many of our readers, who shared memories of joining their mom or grandmother – or both – in the kitchen as they prepared dishes that still conjure up the sounds and tastes of family feasts, listening to relatives share what they were most thankful for, or cozying up on the couch to watch a movie or the big game.
There are many stresses associated with the holiday celebrations -- long hours in the kitchen, inevitable debates around the family table. But what our readers said is that in the end, what we all remember is the warm glow of the love shared on Thanksgivings past. And that the traditions we take with us into the future are the true meaning of this holiday.
For Boom, and Neal, the fondest memories of Thanksgivings past had nothing to do with family or food.
“I was a Cleveland Press carrier - an afternoon paper. But the Thanksgiving issue was a morning edition, and it was the one day the paper was delivered before sunrise,” Boom explained. “I remember walking the quiet morning streets of my route in the cold morning, no lights on in any homes and the trees and streets swept bare of any leaves. I felt strangely privileged.”
Neal shared that “Thanksgiving was even better than Christmas for me. In the early 1960′s, Dad would take me and my siblings down to Cleveland Municipal Stadium to watch St. Ignatius High School battle some East Senate rival for the City Championship football trophy. Mom would be back at home slaving away at the turkey dinner and we all had a grand time. Except for Mom of course.”
For Arthur, Thanksgiving is a treasured time with those he loves most.
“My wife and I are in our 70′s and cherish each Thanksgiving. It is the only holiday where we can have each of our children and grandchildren under the same roof at the same time.”
The theme of families coming together was the most prominent among the responses we received.
For Priscilla, a move to Indiana as a child is still front of mind. “We moved to Indiana when I was 5 years old, to where my mother was from. She had three older brothers -- all married with kids of their own. All 22 of us always gathered for Thanksgiving at one of our homes for a big meal and a full day. I loved these gatherings and treasure the memories which give me warm feelings of love.”
Edie wrote: “When we were kids, we all wore our Sunday best to dinner in the dining room of our big house in East Cleveland. There were always guests, and it was loud with lots of laughter. I loved living in a big loud family, and all of our guests were so relaxed they joined in our polite, but loud, antics.”
Jon remembers how “we somehow travel to my sister’s home, filled with family and friends from different parts of the country. We all stayed at the house -- finding space to sleep -- but enjoying each other, the children, even the teens, and all the food – enough to feed a football team. Fond memories!”
And one anonymous reader wrote about her first time hosting Thanksgiving.
“One of my favorite memories is Thanksgiving Weekend 1987. It was the first time I hosted Thanksgiving. We had my family and my husband’s family, about 26 of us. It was the first time they all met for a memorable weekend as we were married that Saturday. Here we are 35 years later and have passed the traditions to my daughter who was engaged on Thanksgiving 5 years ago.”
Robert’s family came to the realization that hours on end in the kitchen offered very little payoff for the cooks, so they made some changes.
“Our tradition is now a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner meal for our guests. For years we did the big beautiful traditional turkey dinner that everyone wanted. They would eat in 14-minutes what took 14 hours of preparation. Then turkey coma followed. So, we decided to change it up. For example, we’ve made turkey lasagna, spinach/ricotta cheese stuffed and rolled turkey breast, turkey burgers, smoked turkey legs, steamed whole lobsters and other similar meals, all delicious.”
For Gary, Thanksgiving just won’t be Thanksgiving without his mom’s stuffing. “My mother made a great oyster dressing. I know, it turns off some people, but it truly was great. Mom passed away in August and your query brought this to mind.”
“As you know, many people try to cook a Thanksgiving turkey once a year and it’s less than successful,” Ray wrote. “My family concentrates on my mom’s recipe for stuffing instead. It requires 6 lbs. of pork, six eggs, bread crumbs, vegetables, mushrooms and seasoning. My wife and I have continued the tradition to make it every year. In fact, I like it so much. I persuade her to make it two or three times per year.”
An empty chair at the table
Loved ones lost are never far away on a holiday. Even with every seat filled, we still can see the “empty chair” that would have been theirs.
“My parents hosted Thanksgiving for our family of 26 for 45 years,” recalled Maxine. “My father died in 1990 the Saturday after Thanksgiving. My mother died in 1992, the Monday before Thanksgiving. In her last days, she smiled and said that the family will all be together again for the holiday. It seemed only fitting don’t you think?”
As Frank prepares to gather with friends for Thanksgiving this year, he is reminded of those he has lost, “the people of my youth are all gone. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins,” but is also grateful for those he still has in his life to share the day with. “I’ve learned to cook, and my closest friends let me cook and we gather. They remember everything embarrassing and it’s one of the best days each year.”
For Janie, “Thanksgiving Day was always the big ‘get together.’ Our step-dad yelled at us for hours. We were captives of the ‘grown-ups’ table. Cars were squeezed in the driveway. The elders have all passed away. Only my sister, and I, bring life to the past. We give thanks at the Olive Garden. Sometimes with tears.”
Kathy wrote that her “favorite memory was when we would play charades after the meal. Girls vs Guys, then we would have dessert.”
At Edward’s house “after dishes are in the dishwasher and tables are cleaned, my wife starts hanging the Christmas stockings oldest to youngest on the fireplace hearth.”
How Covid changed Thanksgiving
Beth remembers “the Thanksgiving we’ll never forget was the first Thanksgiving of Covid. Only my daughters and their partners came. The extended family stayed home. Instead of the formal sit down with the fine china, silver and crystal, we set up buffet style on the kitchen table. We had a fire pit blazing on the outdoor patio with 3 small tables for each pair. We loved it! We reminisce about it every year now.”
“For many years we have celebrated at our Vermilion cottage with as many family and friends who could join us. Due to COVID restrictions the last few years we have had smaller gatherings but look forward to a big crowd this year,” shared Barb. “Our annual tradition includes a big feast and then a big game of " Capture the Flag” before the traditional pumpkin and pecan pies!”
Michael and his family are anticipating a return of the traditional family gathering. “We are looking forward to creating a new memory we can hand down to future generations: The Year We Could All Be Back Together After Covid Changed Everything! We used to have 40-50 family members every year. Last few years we each did it on our own. Hoping we can all come together again and give thanks.”
Perhaps Nancy and Audrey said it best.
“Well, now that I am old, I realize that I had a storybook life,” Audrey shared. “Raised on a small farm in Lorain County (my dad got his farm when the Depression started when his job disappeared. He went back to his roots and raised his own vegetables and animals -- chickens, pigs, cows, sheep). Although being the last of 10 children we were never hungry, and we were raised by loving parents.”
For Nancy, “ALL (Thanksgivings) are special. It’s the best holiday of the year. It’s only about people, and gratitude, and blessings, and everyone has the opportunity to participate in some way. Friends, family, food, and some football. That’s it. No fuss, no muss.”
In our free from-the-editor text account, Chris Quinn shares what we’re thinking about at cleveland.com and asks readers for their take. You can sign up for free by sending a text to 216-868-4802. You can sign up online at https://joinsubtext.com/chrisquinn