At some point on Thursday morning I’ll get out the kitchen stool, stretch to the top shelf, and take down my grandmother’s serving dishes. We’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner.
The dishes are cool in an old-time way, with their colorful floral markings in intricate raised relief. I probably wouldn’t buy them now, but I can’t imagine ever giving them up. My grandmother has been gone nearly 20 years, and her dishes help keep her close in mind.
She’s one of the many spirits who will be around that table, hovering over the many people sitting in the chairs. That’s the essence of families.
Families get smaller in death, grow with new life, and with the beginnings and ends of relationships, change like an amoeba. No matter how jarring those changes are at the time, no matter who’s sitting in those chairs and who is not, that collective of souls is your family. And whatever else might be going on in your life, that’s who you count on.
It seems especially important to take note of that during these unsettling times. So many of us seem to be looking for a rock or a refuge. For me, holidays spent with the family always feel a little like being in a bubble. In a good way. Not shut off from the world, but sheltered. Not in a state of willful ignorance, but one of temporary amnesia. Reminded that we’re bathed in love, not surrounded by hate, and that these ties bind but don’t cut.
But I do wonder a little about this year. What happens if everyone sitting at the table chooses to discuss these unsettling times? What happens if one of those at the table is someone you unfriended in a fit of election frustration? There’s been a lot of that going on this year, a most unusual presidential election year.
It feels like a lot of bubbles might get popped. I hope they don’t. I hope the feelings all of us have shared with each other over all the years triumph over the emotions of the moment.
I read last week about the people of Mastic Beach voting to dissolve their village government after six tumultuous and argumentative years. Even the final vote was contentious. And I read the wise words of the mayor, who said after the tally was complete, “We’re all going to be neighbors tomorrow. We have a whole lot more that unites us than divides us.”
Our relatives will start arriving Thursday around noon, followed quickly by the usual bustle.
Kids will run down the hallway, from one room to another, plunge to the basement to play, and, if the weather is good, out into the backyard. It doesn’t seem that long ago that those kids were my daughters and their cousins. Now it’s their own children — my grandson and his cousins. From the perspective of years, the transition seems seamless.
Eventually, we’ll gather to eat — at a table that looks quite different from a few years ago.
New spouses will be there, and two infants, bringing new life and energy. Among those missing, but very much present in spirit and hovering above all of us, will be my father-in-law, who left us after a good and very long life, but one that wasn’t long enough for any of us.
I know I’ll be thinking about him when I’m outside grilling the turkey. I’ll remember walking around the perimeter of our house with him as he pointed out the cracks in the foundation that needed to be filled in.
I always thought of him as part of the family foundation on whom we all relied. And now it’s my generation that answers the questions we used to ask him and that doles out the advice he used to give.
And as we sit down at that table, I’ll remember that where once we cried, now we smile.
It’s a little like magic. I’ll give thanks for everyone who feels it.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.