Thanksgiving, Old Photos, and Memoir

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.”


  1. Judy Nicholas tichy on November 21, 2022 at 11:44 am

    Lee, interesting that your wife makes “the pink stuff”. I thought that recipe/tradition came through the Wright/Inyart side of the family?? In our family, there is no written recipe – I remember telling my daughter to add cream “til it’s the right shade of pink”. I vividly remember the crunch of the cranberries as my mother ran them through them through the hand-cranked grinder.

    • Lee Martin on November 22, 2022 at 6:25 am

      Thanks for sharing those memories, Judy!

  2. Virginia Chase Sutton on November 21, 2022 at 5:33 pm

    My grandmother and grandfather, born and grew up in Appalachia, then moved the family to a tiny town near Richmond, Indiana. She had green “stuff” and boy, was it green! At home, we never ate such a dish (what was it, anyhow)? The big dinner (always called that) was in the middle of the day. A heavy meal, but so good, especially her date-nut pudding. My aunt (my father’s sister) brought Uncle John and their four daughters. We were stacked in age, with a cousin for me and a cousin for my sister. The oldest was helpful in the kitchen and the poor younger one was either tortured or ignored. We saw them twice a year, living as we did in the northern Chicago suburbs. My sister and I were nearly silent, all our cousins and Aunt Marge were in the kitchen at last, playtime over. Mother was ornamental and aloof in the living room, along with the men. My father threw baseballs outdoors with a group of his cousins, whom we never remembered, though we pretended we did. No one really talked to us or to Mother, though she whispered into several manly ears.

    • Lee Martin on November 22, 2022 at 6:24 am

      I believe pink stuff involves strawberry Jello and cottage cheese. Thanks for sharing your memories, Virginia!

  3. Glenda Beall on November 22, 2022 at 11:06 pm

    I, too, grew up with the large family dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas. With four brothers and two sisters, we enjoyed the food and the story telling, the teasing and laughter. The young ones played ball on the front lawn at Mother and Daddy’s house. With all my brothers gone and one of my sisters gone, I have only memories of those wonderful family gatherings. I love the old photos to take me back and I use them to write my family stories.

    • Lee Martin on November 23, 2022 at 11:51 am

      Thanks for sharing, Glenda. How lucky we are to have those old photos and the stories they tell. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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