On Thanksgiving and Tradition, redux

I wrote this post in 2011 and repost it every year in tribute to my mom, who passed away in February of 2013. (It has become my Thanksgiving tradition, I guess you would have to say.)

Wishing you every joy of this blessed holiday.


The past three nights I have had dreams of my mother. In each, I was the age I am now, living my current life. But her age changed—early 40s, then 80s, then some age in-between.

I know these dreams came to me because it is Thanksgiving and I will not see her. She and Dad live in a retirement community in another state, and for health reasons, no longer travel. We are staying here because it is my daughter’s first holiday from college. She needs some “home” time, and she will spend Thanksgiving day with her Dad and his family. Those grandparents, who face debilitating health challenges of their own, will be filled with joy to have her there.

It is the right decision.

Nevertheless, my mother is heavy on my mind. My dreams mark that small, tight space in which I live, wedged between aging parents and maturing children. I want more time with both, and still the demands of our lives—mine, my mother’s, my daughter’s—pull us in three radically different directions.

Here is what the dreams were about. In some pretty obvious ways, and some veiled, the situations represented traditions my mother established when we were a family of six: Mom, Dad, my three brothers and me. While “tradition” infused all aspects of our family’s life, from sports superstitions to station wagon vacations, the most vivid to me are still the holidays.

Thanksgiving at our house in Virginia was exactly the same every year. My grandmother lived next door, and my brothers rolled her wheelchair down the tiny hill that connected our yards to bring her to dinner. La-La wore fur in the cold mountain air and brought with her a green cut glass bowl of homemade cranberry sauce. She also made pineapple fritters, a treat reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mom roasted the turkey, always in a brown-n-bag (70s) which meant it could not be stuffed—a choice about which my father expressed disdain year after year after year. Still, he was the carver, and I can see him as clearly as if it were yesterday “testing” bite after juicy bite in that formica-countered, wood stain-cabineted kitchen while my mother instructed my oldest brother, Sutton, on the finer points of making giblet gravy.  (“Stir like hell!”) When we were seated, and Mom complained once again about not making the dining room big enough when they built the house in 1965, my brother Randy would ask of the table:

I wonder if next year we’ll remember asking this year if we would remember asking this last year?


In my family today—the one in which I am the mother—we have no such traditions. Instead, Thanksgiving is a surprise every year. In the early days I made my way back to my mother’s house, first as a single girl, then married, then divorced with a small child in tow. Then the small child learned to dance and Thanksgiving week was filled with an endless schedule of Nutcracker performances that kept us bridled to South Carolina.


Eliza, in blue, a Party Girl in The Nutcracker


I married again, bringing another branch to our beautiful, complicated family tree, and our celebrations diversified once more. I especially loved the years Tim’s mother, Dorothy, joined us for Thanksgiving. I can still see her in the kitchen, making the Monetti family’s traditional creamed onions—a novelty to me. One year, just after a break with the ballet company, we found ourselves with no Thanksgiving plans at all. Along with our dear friends, the Coles, we hopped a plane for New York City and the Macy’s parade. I ate pumpkin ravioli for Thanksgiving dinner; it was divine.


at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade


And so, you see, my daughter has grown up rather traditionless. Instead, her life has been filled with a cornucopia (forgive me) of holiday celebrations. And I ask myself why it is that I now regret this? Why has this thought invaded my dreams? I think it is that space that we find ourselves in, we Mothers Squeezed Between The Generations. Guilt lurks on either end. I regret that I haven’t established the traditions of my childhood in my own home, for my daughter; I feel guilty not abandoning all for the mere opportunity to be with my parents—a remarkable blessing in itself.

And so tomorrow will come, and Eliza will head out the door toward her Ellis family. I’ll pull the big turkey from the fridge, overstuff it with dressing, and load it on my Williams Sonoma roasting pan. Then while I watch my husband carve the big bird, sneaking bites every chance he gets—I will smile and stir the giblet gravy.

I will remember, Mom, to stir like hell.



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Thanksgiving in the Country

How grateful I am to have a family tree that is complex and beautiful, with open arms and plenty of love to go around.

It has been one of the great lessons of my life and one that was deepened Thursday when our little clan made a long, pretty drive along South Carolina’s back roads to join the Ellis side of the family for a grand Thanksgiving celebration. It was one worthy of Garden and Gun (but with exactly zero pretense) at a centuries-old farmhouse surrounded by acres and acres of beautiful South Carolina countryside. Our hostess, Jean, whom I love like mad, filled the house and lawn with family, friends and so much good food all our bodies and our souls were nourished. It was a collection of people connected in so many diverse ways it reminded me of a constellation, bright little lights that came together to form something special.


Jean and Buck’s


We gave thanks, honored the grand patriarch of the family Ed Ellis, then at tables spread hither and yon through the house we caught up with loved ones from far and near and made new friends from the collection of folks gathered there.




Then it was out to the fields with Jean’s husband, Buck (the most interesting man I know*) for some skeet shooting. I was thrilled with the possibility and strapped Emma’s rifle to my back even if I didn’t actually get to pull the trigger (dang shoulder surgery).


photo credit: Emma Ellis


It’s just as well. Emma out shown and outshot us all.




We were walking back to the house when Jean pulled on a quiet branch above our heads and nuts rained down. They were pecans, and as I’ve never gathered or shelled the things, I ran to the house for a bag. (I hear from many that I will now spend the month of December trying to coax them from their shells.)




It was a gorgeous November day, golden in every way, my heart filled to overflowing. How blessed I am to have collected three big families in my life: my own Rigg kin; my husband’s big Italian Monetti branch; and the one that came with my first marriage, the Ellis/Suber clan that refused to let go but instead broadened its loving circle when I remarried 12 years ago.

How they’ve colored my life. How they’ve shown me–each and every member of that beautiful, extended family–what it means to love, deep and pure and with genuine hearts.


my sister/cousin Jean’s car tag


*For instance. Buck is restoring a wooden boat that once belonged to Malcomb Forbes. Swear.