Tuesday, November 23, 2021

You Get What You Give by Martha Reed

A couple of chilly, rainy days kept me indoors and put me in a reflective mood. Since we were nearing Thanksgiving, my ruminations turned toward the blasted ghosts and gilded memories of holiday get togethers past.

Depending on how you looked at it, growing up with my extended family was either a blessing (think Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol) or a curse (e.g., Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Stephen King’s Misery.) Being the eldest daughter of the only son, I occupied a relatively protected position safely ensconced in a buffer layer of older first cousins. This gave me a particularly good vantage point for observing family dynamics and being a naturally inquisitive child, I took full advantage.

Because we lived in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, we stayed with our cousins in Pittsburgh, PA on big holidays. Now, I don’t know if this is specifically a Pittsburgh thing, but my three great-aunts and their families lived in their homes directly across the same street. None of these houses were ever locked. We rampaged through each of them freely at will, looting their snack cupboards and pilfering the liquor cabinets and partying in their unheated and uninsulated expansive third floors. No one ever said anything or tried to stop us. If an adult was looking for one particular child, they would simply locate the wolf pack and shout up the stairs to come down. The whole wide world was ours to command.

I can’t imagine living this freely now. It seems like a dream.

The best part though were our family holiday dinners.

Because there were so many of us, we needed two tables for our holiday meals. The adults sat at the long main table with the candles and the wine, and the kids and any misbehaving teens or adults sat at a kiddie table with our knees pretty much at chin level. Once I got over myself being all grown up, I preferred to sit at the kiddie table because we could misbehave and have the most fun.

I distinctly remember sticking colossal black olives on the ends of my fingers when I was eight and giving the kiddie table a puppet show. I remember challenging everyone to spell “Mississippi” backwards and earning an adult table reprimand when my favorite cousin Jaybird tried doing it through a mouthful of stuffing until he choked before spewing breadcrumb chunks across the room. I observed the Great Cranberry Sauce Debate over whether Ocean Spray jellied straight out of the can or homemade whole berry sauce was better. Harsh and unforgivable words were exchanged by both sides. My grandfather finally settled the dispute like King Solomon by ordering that going forward both versions would be served.

In my rebellious twenties, I stirred the pot by returning from Texas with a recipe for cornbread dressing. I gave that recipe my best shot, but I clearly lost the battle to our traditional Pepperidge Farm stuffing in a howling defeat that sent me back to the kiddie table where I endured subsequent can-you-believe-Martha-did-that shaming for decades.

And yet, for all the guff I had to put up with, I wouldn’t trade these memories for the moon. These are the people who taught me the value of stories, and for that I am truly thankful.

What are your favorite holiday dinner memories and stories? How deeply do they go? Did these stories help make you who you are today?


  1. Holiday dinners at my house were always filled with fun and funny events. It had to be that way, we had first generation representatives of our German, French, and Italian culture on hand well into the 1960s. While the families got along, the traditions sometimes warred. Couple that with my parents wanting to raise all American kids, and my gourmet cook mom wanting to do all the cooking in our tiny apartment kitchen.... It resulted in events like Grandma DiSclaffani, all 4'8" 150 lbs of her of standing on the dining room chair brandishing a knife at my father for serving porterhouse and not braciole to my harried father begging my mother not to cry because the turkey wouldn't fit in the oven. He decided to smoke it outdoors. It was an unusually cold November for New Jersey and the temps were hovering at 0. Only half the turkey cooked. Dad carved the bird, served the cooked half and put the uncooked, now sliced and dismembered parts back on the grill over an open fire. Enough of this smoking stuff.

    Family holidays taught me that what happens isn't as important as how you view it, and what's really important is family.

  2. The best part of the holidays was the week after Christmas. All the pressure was off, there were enough leftovers that nobody had to cook much, the younger kids were still enthralled by their new toys and not so demanding of attention. Usually I had a new book to read and a replacement for the gloves I managed to lose every year. We could pick and choose among the "essential" tasks we had not been able to fit in before the actual day itself--make that pumpkin pie, decorate that gingerbread house, finish hemming that holiday dress. Or drop a few projects--what was the point now of making creamed pearl onions or finish embroidering those snow flake themed napkins? Maybe next year.

  3. Holiday dinners to me were an obligation, not a pleasure. Sad, but true. My mother-in-law's dinners were so gluten laden, I ended up in an afternoon coma. I've stuck by my guns--not obligating anyone to attend the holidays. If they can and want to come--great. If not--fine by me. I want to break obligations and make the holidays enjoyable. Working together is a great joy. Working against each other--nope, not going there. No power plays.

  4. I love this post. Our large family of 8 always went to our cousins' house (a family of 6), plus a few more friends and relatives would pop in so our Thanksgivings were raucous affairs with tons of food (Italian family - lasagna always accompanied the turkey). We'd cram large tables into the kitchen -- my brother would have to move if someone needed to get into the fridge. Olives on the fingers, for sure. Sips of the grown-ups' liqueurs. After dinner, we kids would go down to the finished basement and play records and laugh about I don't even remember what. The turkey sandwiches we'd have at the bar in the basement hours later was the part we always looked forward to the most. Great memories.