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Minna Ham, Lower School Head

Thanksgiving In All Its Many Forms

What a difference a year makes. Last November the world was still learning how to function while in the midst of a pandemic. Although we feared what would happen with health protocols, most were very safe, and many families had an altered Thanksgiving dinner at home with just their immediate families.

This year with vaccinations for adults and older children, boosters, and first shots for younger children, the November holiday seemed to bring hope. From faculty members and students, I have heard about the diverse ways the holiday was observed in a world still grappling with a pandemic and looking forward to a brighter future.

For me, as a child of Korean immigrants, a Thanksgiving meal represented a quintessential American experience. In my mind, this was a large dining table full of extended family with a male patriarch at the head carving a massive, glistening turkey. The table was full of side dishes of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, and an assortment of other foods only seen on this one Thursday in November. Afterward, an array of pies were presented with a choice of pecan, pumpkin, apple along with ice cream and heaps of whipped cream. At least that was the image I had.

Even though the majority of meals my parents cooked were Korean, my mom loved providing an “American Thanksgiving”. She made a delicious stuffing from a recipe borrowed from her Austrian sister-in-law, and although we had canned cranberry sauce, the other side dishes on the table were uniquely Korean American. Like other traditional Korean meals, we had a table of small side dishes called banchan that sat side-by-side with our American turkey. So even though I had a serving of turkey and a slice of cranberry sauce, I also had a helping of white rice with kimchi. We didn’t pass platters of food around the table, instead, we used our chopsticks to grab the banchan. My childhood Thanksgiving didn’t quite live up to the tableau in my imagination, but it lingers in my memory. Every fall I still crave eating salty Italian sausage stuffing with sticky white rice.

This Thanksgiving may have been the most unique Thanksgiving of my life. My children all spent this holiday with their alternate parents and my husband and I decided not to travel to New York to visit my parents since they are in poor health. Instead, we drove to New Hampshire and spent the holiday with some of his relatives. This motley crew represented a family gathering that was uniquely representative of the various constructions of family.

The gathering consisted of only adults, perhaps the youngest was 18. As are the times we’re living in, we all reported our vaccination status and took a rapid test before arriving. My husband and I came with his half-sister. We went to the house of my husband’s cousin and her new partner. There to celebrate were her two sons, and one of his daughters. Also in attendance were my husband’s uncle and his wife, along with his ex-wife, the mother to the hostess. We had roasted turkey and stuffing, a vegetarian entree, and it was served buffet style. Everyone ate randomly and disparately–some sitting, some standing. After everyone ate (and ate some more!), we went outside and sat around a campfire while my husband’s uncle and his ex-wife told stories of their married youth in a small New Hampshire town. We smiled and laughed in the twinkling light of the fire as we got lost in the stories of model-T’s and a ’53 Chevy. I couldn’t help but wonder at the ability of family to love and accept each other as everyone enjoyed each other’s company, even if it was unexpected. Sometimes family chooses itself, even if convention would say otherwise, and we are all better off for that.

My whole life I tried to recreate that tableau in my mind, but what I’ve learned is it only exists in a painting, and my real life doesn’t have to reflect it as much as I might have thought. It is time we reimagine that Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving, and we allow our children’s experience to color a new tableau of the perfect feast for family and friends.

Whether you scraped the holiday meal for a hot pot or rented an AirBnB in Maine so your whole family could stay in one house, every Thanksgiving is unique and this year accentuated the importance of being thankful for family, no matter who that consists of and how or where you gather.

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