Extra table settings

by Joe Murphy

I’m not part of an all-American family (i.e., two parents, 2.5 kids, a dog and cat) so it makes sense that I wouldn’t have an all-American family Thanksgiving. As I get older and my family and friends become more far-flung around the country, Thanksgiving doesn’t seem like the universal homecoming it supposedly is. I can count on one hand the number of times all four of my siblings and I have been simultaneously present at the Thanksgiving table.

Many people with jobs in retail or food service have to work the day of or day after Thanksgiving. Maybe it has always been this way and I’m just too young to remember, but it seems as if Thanksgiving has become more communal and less familial than it once was.

But these days most families are not the “ideal American family” (if there ever was one), so it makes sense that many Thanksgiving tables these days are composed not just of kin.

Work and the cost and hassle of travel usually mean that there’s an open seat and a plate of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce for someone else to occupy — be they friends, extended family, co-workers, neighbors or classmates — at my house and many others. That’s probably got do with Thanksgiving’s history, traditions and (not to sound too much like Charlie Brown) spirit. Most people have at least something to be thankful for — even if the print edition of this newspaper is used to keep you warm, as kindling or a blanket, at least there’s that.

This year my sister invited international classmates of hers at NC State University to join our family for lunch in Durham. My eldest brother made it up from Atlanta, but my other older brother and sister couldn’t attend.

Along with my parents and my sister’s three guests — a married couple from South Korea and a young woman from Iran — there were eight at our table.

I thought that was plenty but a quick, unscientific survey found a Thanksgiving party of 10 people and up to be the norm, especially among those who didn’t spend Thanksgiving exclusively with family.

It was our guests’ first American Thanksgiving celebration. That gave us a chance to explain the melding of universal Thanksgiving tradition and our own.

For instance gravy and pumpkin pie are traditional but goose-liver pâté (my French–born grandmother’s favorite) and potato chips and onion dip as an appetizer (because there’s a football game on television in the other room) are ours.

Opening the doors to friends and acquaintances allows you to share the holiday with others and makes the day more memorable. I explained what tryptophan is, met a South Korean NBA fan and discussed why military service is not required in our country.

My friend, as a Thanksgiving guest, watched the game with a police officer who lamented the infiltration of football by “longhairs” (my friend politely didn’t show him the photo ID in his pocket of him with shoulder-length hair). Another friend had eight guests at his family’s Thanksgiving, four of whom were still hanging around well into the next day. Usually when it’s only family there’s a grandmother that grew up during the temperance movement and thinks playing poker is evil, and an aunt, uncle or parent with whom you can’t discuss current events without getting into an argument. Politics and ideology are never good Thanksgiving table conversations for most families, which is why most families avoid those topics completely, compliment the food, recycle last year’s conversations and fall asleep watching the football game.

The point is that being thankful — whether for a bountiful harvest, making it through another year or for the memory of good times with loved ones not present — is a universal emotion that transcends blood, age and cultural barriers. You never know, this year’s Thanksgiving guest could be part of your next year, as is the case with my recently engaged buddy (so remember to always be polite and not to make an ass of yourself too much).

Traditions are traditions, and family is family. But if there’s anyone in your family who can’t make it to your next Thanksgiving, show someone the hospitality that you’d hope someone else would show you or yours. There’s nothing wrong with fewer leftovers… plus family and tradition can become stale over time if they never change.