At the start of this Thanksgiving week, I remember the family dinners of my childhood. As long as she was able, my grandmother Read hosted. She lived in a modest frame house cattycornered from the Berryville Store in southeastern Illinois. At one time, she and my grandfather had managed that general store, but he died in March of 1956 when I was five months old, and she was left to her widowhood. She had six children, four of whom still lived close to her. She had grandchildren as well, and at Thanksgiving her house held the conversation and the laughter of many. Because her table couldn’t accommodate the multitude, we ate in shifts. Since my mother was forty-five when I was born, I was much younger than my cousins. When it came time to eat, I always wanted to sit by my cousin, Bill, because he was always kind to me and didn’t try to put foods I didn’t like on my plate like my Uncle Richard did if I sat next to him. Today, Bill is one of my two surviving first cousins. The relentless march of time has thinned my family. Those of us who are still among the living have separated by geography or circumstance, and the family dinners of my childhood are merely memories.
Our photographs, though, endure. Memoirists can use old family photos to immerse themselves in memories. These photos call back an earlier time. Taking note of the clothes people wore, the things they hung on their walls, their furnishings, the way someone held her hands can suggest scenes. One scene can lead to another scene, and before you know it, you’re writing a narrative. Photographs can also make you curious. Why did your father’s eyeglasses never fit properly? Why didn’t he take the time to get them adjusted. What does that one detail say about the story of your family? Looking at old photographs can also make you remember the secrets your family tried to keep. What is your mother hiding with that pained smile? What do you know about her that’s there just beneath the surface of the photo? Old photos can document experience while also sparking our imagination if we take the time to look, to remember, to question, to think, and to imagine.
These days, my wife Cathy and I open our home to students, former students, and friends who need a place to be on Thanksgiving. Cathy cooks too much, but she says it gives her joy, so who am I to complain? She prepares the traditional dishes from her family which are remarkably like what I recall from mine. This shouldn’t surprise me. After all, she and I grew up only five miles from each other. She does homemade noodles, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, and a Jello salad she calls “pink stuff.” She has a turkey and a vegan option for those like me who don’t eat meat. She makes her own bread and all the desserts. No one will gather around our table and go home hungry.
This is the way we come close to replicating the fellowship of the family dinners we remember. We open our home. We say, “Come break bread with us.” We say, “Gather here, so you won’t have to be alone.”