Imagine the Thanksgiving table of your life.
It’s a long table, populated by all the people who have ever sat down with you at a Thanksgiving meal.
It’s a heavy table, groaning with every great and awful Thanksgiving dish you’ve ever eaten or avoided. Here’s to you, green-bean-mushroom-soup-and-potato-chip casserole!
It’s a table that may sag under the weight of all those complicated relationships, so much craziness through the years, but what would Thanksgiving be without a little madness for entertainment?
The image of this long table came to me the other day for no clear reason. I know only that it started with a flash of memory in which I saw a Thanksgiving, or some fusion of Thanksgivings, from my childhood.
On a normal night when I was growing up, my seven younger siblings and I ate together, noisily and fast. My father ate later, alone, at a tray table in front of the TV. My mother scrounged whatever she could when the rest of us were done.
But on Thanksgiving we all assembled, elbow to elbow, at two mismatched tables shoved together, my father presiding, then bowed our heads, 10 voices joined in the same prayer:
Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive.
At least one of my brothers usually snickered and muttered something like “these thigh gifts,” before we were released to fight over the sweet potatoes topped with toasted marshmallows.
In certain years, we were joined by outsiders, some neighbor who had no family or some teenager who had been temporarily kicked out of his own house. Once there are 10 people at the table, a few more are barely noticeable, like a few more potato chips on the green beans.
That raucous childhood table was the one I was thinking about the other day when, mysteriously, other people from other times began to appear, the way extra characters are quickly sketched into an animated cartoon.
There were Aunt Mary Louise and Uncle Joe and their boys, from that year my family went to their Atlanta house for Thanksgiving and I was deemed old enough, at 11, to sit with the adults.
Then came a smattering of students in the college dining hall on Thanksgiving of my freshman year when I couldn’t afford to go home, all of us holiday orphans.
My imaginary table grew longer, to make space for the people I had dinner with in Berkeley one year in my twenties. I don’t remember the food, but I do remember the discussion of turkey-baster babies.
At the Thanksgiving table of your life, you will remember some weird conversations.
The more I thought about this giant Thanksgiving table, the more crowded it got.
There was Sharman and her big New York clan, with whom I spent several Thanksgivings.
There was David, from the year we went to dinner at the Brooklyn home of a friend of his who was dying of AIDS.
Then came the French people with whom I once shared an American Thanksgiving in Paris. Next to them sat my nieces, nephews, in-laws, the parents of in-laws, assorted old friends — all of them accompanied by too much canned cranberry sauce.
As the table in my mind got longer, I realized how many times I’ve shared Thanksgiving with people I barely know, which is one of the beauties of the day. It’s a familial meal, but one in which family is extended to make room for strangers, co-workers, the friends of friends.
My brother Bill appeared, no longer as gaunt as he was on his last real Thanksgiving when we went to an extended-family gathering in Colorado. It was outdoors, chilly, and Bill was shivering. He could no longer eat, but he insisted on pouring himself a plastic glass of box wine. He raised it in a toast.
“To Thanksgiving,” he said.
At my imaginary table, Bill’s plate was heaped with food, and he said it again:
Who would be at the Thanksgiving table of your life? Probably too many people to remember, but so many that you’d be reminded of how rich you are in people.
At my table, more and more people keep squeezing in, grabbing a plate and saying, “Isn’t this, above all, what we have to be grateful for? Each other, through the years?”
There are still tickets available for a couple of the Songs of Good Cheer holiday singalongs that Eric Zorn and I are co-hosting Dec. 6-10 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Deadline for entering the contest to win two tickets is Monday, Nov. 27.
Information is at chicagotribuneem.com/zorn
Come sing with us.