Of Thanksgiving memories and the generating of new ones...
Somewhere in Howards Grove, Wisconsin, Thanksgiving is happening without me.
As many of us gather today with family and friends, we celebrate the present holiday but no doubt remember the Thanksgivings of our past as we renew traditions or, perhaps, remember those who are no longer around to celebrate today.
For me, it's my Uncle George and Aunt Helen who hosted almost every Thanksgiving of my youth.
Maybe that's why it's my favorite holiday. No presents, no hassle. It was family, great food, football and a feeling that, no matter what had gone on the 364 days in between, there was always something you could rely on: Thanksgiving in what was then rural Sheboygan with relatives who felt like a pair of extra parents and who made you feel like another son.
Helen was my mom's sister, and George was her husband--a home builder who constructed many a home in the Howards Grove area in the 50's, 60's and 70's including the one they lived in. When it went up, it stood between what was then "Howards" and a similar sized village just down the road called MIllersville. They lived in what we considered "the country"--their place was flanked by farms, and a small creek sat in their backyard, just beyond the huge garden they tended to each summer. It's where we'd go to shoot off fireworks on the 4th of July, where we'd gather each November for Helen's incredible Thanksgiving spread.
George and Helen had a son, Ken, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Ken was wheelchair-bound from birth, able to communicate but not able to care for himself. While Thanksgiving is the memory I conjure up each fall, the lesson of unconditional love and duty I learned from their example is what I carry with me each day. My aunt and uncle refused to put their son in any sort of assisted care, although anyone would've understood. Caring for their son was a 24/7 job, one they never complained about or shirked. The only break they'd take would come each summer, when they'd take a week off to go "up north". My mom and I would stay with Ken at their home--for me, it was a week in the country with my cousin and a chance to explore a new, exotic world. For my aunt and uncle, it was seven days to recharge before coming home to their reality. Over the years, their house became a constant in my life--we never owned a place of our own and my life growing up was spent in a collection of rented Sheboygan duplexes. They'd come and go, but Helen and George's place was always there, kindergarten through college and beyond.
And then, there'd be Thanksgiving.
The sights and scents are as vivid as yesterday: the warm smell of baking bird as we came in from the cold, George doing the annual carving duties while the rest of us sat at the table, watching football on their portable TV. There'd be cards afterwards, and leftovers for supper before the games would resume and last into the night. As I got older I'd be able to enjoy the cocktails they'd share and I'd earn a seat at the sheepshead table with the rest of the adults. Sometimes, I'd have a girlfriend in tow and some years meant eating TWO Thanksgiving dinners (the second at the date's home) but, no matter what was going on in my life, Thanksgiving meant a late morning ride to Howards and celebrating with Helen and George.
My aunt and uncle are gone now, as is Ken. The house is still there, though, but what's around it is hardly what anyone would call "country". It's one of many similar looking homes along the seamless stretch of residential neighborhood hooking up the two former and distinctly separate villages. That creek, the one I used to play near each summer and skate on in the winter? Long gone. The rural expanse that was once the garden and a farmer's field that rolled all the way to Highway 42 is now a nicely groomed subdivision that sits in front of what to me is the "new" Howards Grove High School. I know, because almost every time I drive back to my hometown of Sheboygan, I make sure I include a glide past Helen and George's former home.
It's there that someone else is having Thanksgiving today. I'm sure new memories are being made, as well they should be. Each of us lets go of our respective pasts to generate new traditions for those we are with in the moment. You hope that, someday, the things we do to say "thanks" become fond recollections for those we'll someday leave behind. Circle of life, and all that.
It's one more giant thing to be thankful for--all we enjoy now, and all we had in the past, no matter how distant it seems or how changed it is now.
And, your thankful someone else is able to create a new and hopefully fond memory, even if it's happening without you in a place that's so much a fond part of your former life.