Thanksgiving dinners can be very tense. Even one marshmallow less in the candied sweet potatoes will bring howls of protest from diners who will then refuse the dish because they don’t like sweet potatoes. It’s very hard to change traditions as I learned the first year my family spent in Taiwan.
On Thanksgiving Eve, our landlord arrived at the door with his arms full of a large, live, fully feathered turkey that apparently was really annoyed by the whole proceeding
“Oh, Mr. Wu, you really shouldn’t have done it,” I cried very sincerely.
Mr. Wu’s beaming smile slowly dimmed. “Easy to fix,” he said, making a neck wringing gesture with his hands. Neither the turkey nor I were convinced.
“Don’t you Americans like turkey for your holiday Thanksgiving?” he asked. Well, yes, but only if it’s quietly lying in the butcher’s case. Decapitating and plunging the bird into boiling water for plucking was a process I was no more enthusiastic about than the turkey was. I took him from Mr. Wu none too graciously, and for Thanksgiving dinner that year we had fried chicken and baked Spam. I can’t say it went over well.
Even though that experience convinced me that Thanksgiving is surely the worst day in the whole year to change tradition, I am planning to try something different this holiday. The grandkids are beginning to express an interest in family history. It’s about time. So I hope to use the time that we would ordinarily spend critiquing the lifestyles of absent relatives to begin creating our own family history.
As one of my sons said, “I’m interested in how we came to be who and how we are. But I suppose one big thing, if it’s still possible to pin down, is when exactly did our various forebears come to America, and why?”
We’re not the only ones who think this is important. Prolific local author Randall Platt told me recently that she believes that there ought to be a law that people must pass on their life stories before they themselves pass on permanently. How would that work?
“Say Aunt Clara’s been ill for a long time and you pull her off life supports,” she explained. “With this law, the doctor runs in and says, ‘No, she didn’t write her life story. Put her back till she does.’ ”
That may seem impractical, but Platt, with nine books to her credit, is firm about the importance of stories. Her latest novel, “Hellie Jondoe,” has won multiple awards, including both the prestigious Willa and the Will Rogers Medallion. She believes it’s most important that we all create that sense of where we begin and end.
“First, it gives a person a real inventory of their life; every person can see that they have indeed made a difference,” she says. “Secondly, a history is something that can be handed down to future generations. What more perfect gift can there be?”
How to get started? I learned from Lakewood historian Cy Happy that sometimes it’s easiest to start with one single event. Start with the elders at the table. Ask them to recall their first day of school, or the first Thanksgiving they remember. Who was there? Where did they come from? Who were their parents? Choose a moderator and record everything. Don’t get bogged down in the details of what really happened. We do not all remember things the same way.
At this point, we’ll give the kids a choice between doing research on the computer or doing the dishes. The computer will win. And www.Ancestry.com turns up nuggets in just moments.
It will be a snap to put those stories together in a book. What a great Christmas present! One size fits all. There, your shopping is all done. Don’t mention it.
Oh, and what happened to that long-ago turkey? Well, we gave him to the tiny lady who collected our garbage, and she was very pleased. She and our holiday bird were last seen heading over the hill at a turkey trot. I don’t know if the turkey became a pet or dinner, but they both looked very happy.
Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker, humorist and columnist. See her TV show at www.itsnevertoolate.com. She can be reached by e-mail at Dorothy@itsnevertoolate.com.