In honor of Grandparents Day, I thought I would talk about Thanksgiving — because when I think about my grandparents, I think about lessons of grace learned around the holiday table.
Thanksgiving. A time to pack up whatever station wagon or van my father had acquired and head to Wisconsin, first from Richmond, Virginia, and later from Birmingham. We drove through the night (rather, my dad did), reaching Kenosha just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving meals. Yes, meals.
Our annual pilgrimage included meals with both sets of grandparents, first at my mother’s parents’ house and then at my father’s. These were vastly different experiences, and even as children, we understood that our expectations should be different in both places.
My mother’s parents lived in a part of town that was probably considered the other side of the tracks. They lived in a duplex with a tiny front yard, an enclosed porch where my uncle slept, and a living room with a black-and-white television. On Thanksgiving that tiny house was filled to the brim when our family of six invaded, along with my mother’s brothers and a few uncles with names like Shorty and Buddy. While the ham — thoroughly glazed with whatever alcohol my grandfather sourced — baked, the percolator percolated on the stove and my grandmother brought out the windmill cookies. The four of us children sat in front of that t.v. with the rabbit-ear antenna and tried to find the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. While the adults gathered at the table, we ate wherever we found a spot. If we were lucky, there was time for a game of Rummy Royal before we headed to my other grandparents’ house.
My father’s parents lived in solidly middle-class suburbia. Their neat yellow bungalow had a large back yard with a weeping willow tree, a basement with a bumper pool table and a chest full of comic books, and a bar where sometimes my grandfather made us virgin Pink Pussycats (they were foamy, pink, and delicious). My grandmother served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, although I have never been sure how it came about because I never actually saw her make any of it. She also brought out her signature mincemeat pie, which I never actually saw anyone eat. The adults ate upstairs, and all the cousins — nine of us plus my aunt who was the same age as my oldest cousin — ate in the basement. It was usually a strange mash-up of solid Midwestern meets up-and-coming Southern belle when all the cousins gathered downstairs.
The contrast of material differences was evident. The generosity was strikingly the same. All of my grandparents gave in a way that they could to all of us grandchildren, and without ever really talking about it, we knew to be grateful and gracious. We knew that we didn’t need to compare our grandparents and what they could offer. We learned that there was just as much to be thankful for in that tiny duplex as in the yellow bungalow with the weeping willow tree.
On Grandparents Day, I remember how blessed I was to have my grandparents in my life for as long as I did. I am grateful for my Grandpa Joe who could pop out his dentures, put on a funny knit cap, and make us laugh while we tried to find the Macy’s parade. I am grateful for my Grandma Alice who simply treated everyone with kindness and who always had the warmest hugs. I am grateful for my Grandpa John with his solid foundation of faith and his endless devotion to my Grandma Phyllis, to whom I am eternally grateful for inspiring a love of words in me. But today I am also grateful for my parents, who are now great-grandparents. They taught us to be gracious. They taught us that it is not what you have that matters but what you can give. They taught us that a house — tiny duplex or yellow bungalow — is just a structure that allows a family to thrive inside. They kept us connected to our grandparents even when we moved many miles away.
In a world that seems so divided, I long for one of those two-meal Thanksgivings with my grandparents. I wish I could sit one more time in front of that black-and-white t.v. or at that bar. I will settle for remembering all of them with love and for practicing the lessons of grace learned in their presence — especially today on Grandparents Day.
Thank you Joe, Alice, John, and Phyllis.