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Her Family Helped Her Create New Thanksgiving Memories

She worried that this year’s family gathering wouldn’t be like Thanksgivings past. But she learned that traditions—and families—evolve.

Illustration of an angel on a Thanksgiving wreath; By Dawn Cooper

Twenty-three people might seem like a crowd to some on Thanksgiving. To me it didn’t seem like nearly enough. As a child I was one of 125 people at our family gathering. Back then, I had so many relatives, we had to move the feast from my grandmother’s farmhouse in Batesville, Ohio, to the nearest county extension hall.

These days we were a much smaller group. We needed only four tables in the hall we’d rented in Belle Valley, Ohio. Most of the family still lived in-state. My son Ryan had traveled farthest to get here from South Carolina. I was just a couple of hours away in West Virginia and had insisted on acting as hostess. I wanted to bring back the joy I’d felt at my childhood Thanksgivings that overflowed with love going back years.

My cousin Kay and I had done our best to recreate the scene. We dug out our mothers’ old handmade ceramic turkeys and pilgrims. We’d tracked down made-from-scratch pumpkin, pecan and apple pies that rivaled Aunt Esther’s beloved recipes. My son Roman had numbered index cards to hand out as family members arrived, so we’d be ready to play the games I’d planned for after dinner. But nothing’s the same now, I thought, giving one of the centerpieces a tweak. It seemed that I was most grateful for the way things used to be.

But I couldn’t bring back the past or the wall-to-wall love that filled it. Not with so many of my relatives in heaven with the angels. I felt all alone with my memories. Life moved at a faster pace now, with everything focused on the future of this, the future of that. The kids played their games on computers, or smartphones! Could I really expect all these grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be interested in plain old-fashioned fun?

Ryan Hodges with his parents; Photo Courtesy Rita Hodges
Ryan Hodges with his parents; Photo Courtesy Rita Hodges

I was determined to give it a try. As family members arrived at the hall, I handed each one of them a numbered card. “Just hang on to it for the games later,” I explained. The kids seemed curious. Ryan looked skeptical when I handed him number 17, but he didn’t give it back. Ryan had always been too logical to enjoy drawn-out parlor games even before he grew up and became an engineer. He wasn’t the sentimental type. I bowed my head. Lord, I pray my family will humor me in my longing to feel the comfort of family traditions of Thanksgivings past.

We all filled our plates buffet-style and found our seats. Knives and forks clanked as we dug in. Talk and laughter jumped across tables, and I looked over at Ryan, hoping the long trip seemed worth it to him. I couldn’t begin to explain to him what the old Ohio Thanksgiving tradition meant to me. Besides everything.

When everyone was finishing up dessert, I took a deep breath and stood up. “Now it’s time for some fun!” I said. I tried to capture the enthusiasm of Aunt Mary Lois, our Thanksgiving emcee of bygone days. But my voice, to my own ears, didn’t measure up. I soldiered on.

“Everyone grab a partner!” I passed out the brightly wrapped cardboard tubes called crackers that were so popular in my youth. “Pull from both ends,” I instructed the pairs. The room exploded with pops and snaps as the crackers burst open. The kids laughed as little gifts tumbled out. So far, so good, I thought.

I rapped on my glass with my fork, feeling more confident. “Time to say what we’re grateful for,” I said. “And we’ll do that with the alphabet game!”

“What kind of game is that?” one of the great-grandchildren asked.

“Well,” I said, “Remember the number you got when you walked in?” There was a rustling as everyone checked their index card. “Who’s got number one?”

A cousin raised her hand.

“Tell us something you’re grateful for,” I said. “Something that begins with the letter A.

”My cousin grinned. “Apple pie!” she said, taking a forkful from her slice. “Yum!”

Great-granddaughter Mindy was next. “B,” she said. “I’m grateful for Buckeye Country.”

I noticed people counting ahead to see what letter corresponded to the number they held. Getting competitive, I see. Much to my delight.

“Crackers!” Number 3 shouted.

Number 4 didn’t skip a beat: “Dogs!”

“Football!” That one got a big hoot. Maybe this year’s Thanksgiving wasn’t the one of my memories, but every-one sure was having a good time. I relaxed a little more with each new letter.

“Who’s got O?” I called, really in the spirit now.

“Ohio—O-H-I-O!” my cousin Shawn shouted, followed by a cheer that rivaled an Ohio State game.

“Number 16, your turn,” I said.

“Pumpkin pie!” my husband, Russ, called out. “Copycat,” teased Number 1, who’d helped herself to another slice of apple pie.

“The next one’s a challenge,” I said. “Who’s got 17?”

I looked around the tables. Ryan slowly raised his hand. Oh, no, I thought. Why did Ryan have to get Q? He’d been a good sport up to now, but of all the letters for him to get…I could easily imagine the kind of answer he might come up with. Especially after his long drive. He might be grateful for Quiet. Or getting this over with Quickly. Ryan considered the question for a long moment. An extremely long moment. I almost wished I could sink down into a puddle of Quicksand.

“Q,” he finally said. “Quaker City Carnival.” The room went silent. I hadn’t thought about that carnival in years, but enough of us in the room knew all about it.

“It’s one of the oldest traditions in Ohio,” Ryan said. “Grandma and Grandpa Morris each paid a nickel to get in, and that’s where they met. It’s where they fell in love. That’s where this whole thing started. This whole family.” Ryan looked around the room, catching the eye of everyone one by one. “We wouldn’t be here giving thanks together if it wasn’t for the Quaker City Carnival.”

The room erupted in applause. Some pounded on the tables and cheered. If we had been 125 people in that hall, we couldn’t have made more of a ruckus. The room felt full with every family member who’d come before us and all the love that had kept us connected to our Ohio traditions. Ryan had surely won himself first place with one of the hardest letters—with an answer as good as any I’d heard in days of old.

A great-grandson leaned into a circle of other kids and yelled above the din: “This is one of the best Thanksgivings we’ve ever had.” Whatever their Thanksgivings would look like when they grew up, they’d remember this one fondly. And I had a brand-new Thanksgiving to cherish. The Thanksgiving I learned that memories aren’t meant to be recreated; they’re meant to be made here and now. The last person I would have expected made a perfect one, a memory where love started with the letter Q.

For more angelic stories, subscribe to Angels on Earth magazine.

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