I believe in the little kids’ table.
For thirty six years, as many as I’ve been alive, I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving in Racine, Wisconsin – a town under the thumb of Milwaukee and not quite Chicago, on Lake Michigan. At first, my parents would drive four hours from northern Wisconsin and we would arrive in cold and sometimes snowy darkness, stumbling bleary eyed into my Grandmother’s hugs in the avocado kitchen, and we’d eat lukewarm and perfectly greasy Infusino’s pizza that Grandpa would insist on paying for.
The next day was Thanksgiving, and we would see the cousins. It is an Irish Catholic extended family (six cousins in one family, although it may as well have been thirty, it was staggering to me). My one sister and I were brought up Lutheran. Thanksgiving meant maybe 40 people jammed into Aunt Sally’s house, and the dining table in comparison looked impossibly elegant and small in the formal living room – barely enough room for Grandma, Grandpa, and their three kids and spouses.
In the next room, the ten grandkid cousins, and later our spouses, and our expanding list of children, or our boyfriends (if they were brave enough to withstand the torment), or Father Bruce, and a dog, maybe, crowded around the little kids’ table, or the high chairs, or the round wooden coffee table in the den. We’d wait through the never-ending grace while our food got cold, and then stories would whirl around like smoke from dry kindling. Fire-fighting stories, “grandpa” stories, hunting stories, or cottage stories or Ireland stories, or maybe Pete and Pat, twins, would tell a story together in some mysterious twin language and laugh so hard that no one could understand them. Not that we can understand them half the time anyway. I guess there was food, too, but it wasn’t really about the food.
Someone would take pictures, if we remembered. Women would wash dishes and solve family problems, which I always thought was unfair. One year all the kids got the flu and threw up all the way home. My dad would make Manhattans and Uncle Mike would play computers in the basement with my husband. The next year we would do it all over again. And I would come from northern Wisconsin, or Cincinnati, or wherever I was living, to Racine, and sit at the little kids’ table. Just like you did, maybe.
My Grandma died in 2000. Lung cancer. My Grandpa died in 2005, in June. He was 92. I still went to Racine last November.
It’s late October, and I am coming up on my thirty-seventh Thanksgiving. Cousins get married, and their families want to share Thanksgiving. Babies are born. Work schedules interfere. People move away. Maybe it is time to move on, into the next 37 years. Maybe it is not. I don’t know.
But this I know, and this I do believe – that the little kids’ table, and everything it symbolized, shaped my life. And I am thankful for it.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.