Passing The Torch
Carving Up New Thanksgiving Traditions
by Laura B. Randolph
I have two indelible memories of the first
and only time I cooked the family Thanksgiving dinner. One
is how truly awful the food tasted — the turkey was dry,
the string beans irreparably mushy, the pumpkin pies store-bought.
The other is of how my mother, along with all the other family
elders, pretended not to notice.
If you knew my mother, and
the other over-50 folks to whom I am related, you would know
how significant this is. As a
rule, they have no pity on the rest of us. They come from
the old school that says the only way a daughter/son will learn
to do something right is to be told when and how she/he has
done it wrong.
So, last year, when they all sat down to dinner
and not one of them so much as mentioned the paper plates,
stemware, and the everyday silver, I was certain their
collective shock had rendered them speechless.
But when my mother — the
family matriarch, the woman who has never set a holiday table
that didn’t come straight
out of the pages of House Beautiful (exquisite china,
a white linen tablecloth, sterling flatware polished to a
very morning) — surveyed the table and pronounced
it “lovely,” I
wasn’t just baffled, I was chilled to the bone.
And it didn’t stop there. Calmly, coolly, as if
she were saying, “Please
pass the gravy,” my mother turned to my only male
cousin, Tony, and asked him to carve the turkey. A hush
fell over the
table. No one moved.
Ignoring the paper plates is one
thing. But asking my cousin to carve the turkey is like
asking Milli Vanilli
the National Anthem. If my family has one sacred Thanksgiving
it is that my uncle, Tony’s father, carves the
bird. It is a task he always performs with great fanfare
and has never entrusted to anyone, not even the year
his carving hand was in a cast because he’d cut
his finger off with a saw. “Great idea,” my
uncle said to my mother, as he passed his son the knife.
were these people? What had they done with my real family?
What was happening here?
A rite of passage. That, I later
came to realize, was the only explanation. That Thanksgiving,
on — from mother to daughter, from father to
son, from one generation to the next. It was the reason
sudden and inexplicable announcement that she would
no longer be preparing our traditional Thanksgiving
Now I see
her decision was never about who cooked the bird. It
was about pushing us from the nest.
My family elders,
the keepers of our heritage, had deemed the time right
to begin passing on the family
decided it was time to tell us, their sons and daughters,
that one day soon the responsibility of gathering the
of keeping it close, would be ours.
When my uncle passed
his son the knife, he really was passing the torch and sending
us all a message: the
clock was ticking.
Soon, it would be up to us to preserve the family
traditions — my
father’s oyster casserole, my aunts’ cobblers,
my uncle’s skill with a knife — that
have connected one generation to the next and, most
the essential roots and rhythms of our lives.
in this way, we are talking about so much more than
Thanksgiving and place settings and turkeys.
We’re talking about traditions
that have been passed on for thousands of years,
in one form or another, updated and imprinted by
each generation before
being passed on to the next.
Something of our ancestors’ teachings
still lives on in each of us and, if we continue
to foster them, will live
forever with a unifying force, a quiet power, that
has taught us how to survive and flourish in a hostile
world, how to seize
new opportunities and make the most of whatever difficult
situations we may face. That, my family elders knew,
was the real value
of the traditions they were passing on.
And it was
only the beginning. With each passing year we, the next generation,
will be charged with
responsibility so that we can move forward knowing
what it takes to raise
our own families, to be good mothers and good fathers,
just like our own mothers and fathers.
And so, as
this Thanksgiving approaches, I have come to understand that
each of my family members
his/her child intimately.
Each of them knew that, if the transition were
to be successful,
the torch had to be passed slowly, carefully.
Otherwise, when the day came when we, their children, were
the elders, we wouldn’t
know how to keep it lit or burning. And if the
passage were too swift or too sudden, we might
find it too hot — or
too heavy — to hold.
It begins with Thanksgiving.
Or at least it can. For me, that is no easy challenge.
I have never
and my mother knows this. Until recently, the
only thing I have ever made for dinner with any
or flair is
reservations. Unlike my mother’s culinary
skill, my style of cooking can best be described
as new wave. Better still, microwave.
Fast food. Blink of the eye. Push of the button.
now, culinary skill was never important to me.
Until now, however, I never understood
in the kitchen, she wasn’t just making
our dinner, she was making our memories; she
wasn’t just blending spices,
she was blending generations.
And so weeks before
the holiday, I stand in her kitchen stirring
and seasoning. “Take your time,” my
mother tells me, showing me how to baste the
turkey and knead the bread.
“Time isn’t the answer,” I
say, stomping my foot the way I did when I was a child. No
matter how many times
I do it,
I tell her, it doesn’t taste like
what I used to say to your grandmother,” my
mother says, tying her apron around me.