When I was young, Thanksgiving entailed a longish drive by my father and shorter ones by his brother and sister and their families to spend the holiday with their widowed mother. After she died, Thanksgiving rotated between the homes of the three siblings for a decade or more. This was probably more fun for the three of them than for the spouses and kids.
When I was a young adult there was a long drive home to see my parents, but eventually there were no more grandparents or parents to visit and Thanksgiving was spent at my own home. This was a relief, but it entailed a lot smaller cast. Sooner or later, we are all orphans.
As time passed and jobs moved us around the map, we discovered we weren’t the only orphans or displaced persons. Some of our best Thanksgivings have been shared with people like ourselves — too far from home to make the trip or from a home no longer there, with no one left to visit.
Especially good were a few years when the need to earn a buck took us to the frozen tundra of Minnesota. It is an unusual place, in some ways more like the increasingly outmoded stereotype of the South than the South itself. Because of its climate and remoteness, Minnesota attracts relatively few migrants in. It is thus less diverse than many other parts of the country.
Conversely, it seems like relatively few Minnesotans ever leave. Those who grew up there tend to stay and live close to relatives. They remain close to people they went to school with from Kindergarten through The U. It can seem to an outsider a clannish, hermetically sealed place with its own folkways — ice fishing, hockey as the backyard sport, walleye as the delicacy of choice. Natives dress in a frigid howling hell as if it were balmy. Shorts in a snowstorm are not unusual. Summer is resented for interfering with hockey and cross country skiing season.
Outsiders have a very hard time assimilating in a place where everyone was either in school together or is a second cousin or both. The holidays can be lonely, but it turned out we weren’t alone. Other wayfarers from the lower forty-seven began to huddle together to celebrate and for warmth — literal and metaphorical. Little by little our Thanksgivings began to include a family from Greenwood, Mississippi, another from New York, New York, sometimes with the grandmothers in tow, and any other aliens we knew who couldn’t go home.
While Minnesotans were dining on Scandinavian delicacies like lutefisk, lichen and reindeer tripe, we were tucking into pecan pies and juleps. Our situation was a kind of echo of the first Thanksgiving. We were strangers in a strange land celebrating fellowship together. Except in Minnesota, the natives weren’t friendly and did not attend. The one exception was a family of raccoons that we kept trying to evict from under our now snow covered deck but which kept returning to troop past in the snow — mother and offspring Indian file — as we sat down to the first course.
They were lovely gatherings. If home is where the heart is, all those disparate people far from home managed to be at home together for a few hours. And thankful to be sharing a warm moment in a cold world. To paraphrase Stephen Stills, if you can’t be with the ones you love, eat turkey, stuffing and pies with the ones you’re with.