The Harvest of Family

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 26, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- The cousins from California have shown up just in time to help with the annual roundup and delivery of my late grandmother's china. Over the river and through the woods, to granddaughter's house it comes.

The younger generation is here as well. They have wended their way out of area codes that stretch all the way from 310 to 212. We brought them in like sheaves from their assorted airports and highways.

Now, for the moment, I am standing alone in the kitchen that will soon be transformed into Thanksgiving Central, checking off the list of ingredients for Thursday's extravaganza. The wooden bridge chairs. The matching -- well, mostly matching -- glasses. The turkey platter that always shows up sooner or later. The 30-cup coffee pot that is the collective property of this extended family.

This is what I, the modern non-farm wife, am harvesting from the crop at our local market: three pans of sweet potatoes, 2 bowls and one cavity of stuffing, apples and onions, salad goodies, the makings for the dreaded and beloved string bean casserole, and a 25-pound turkey.

But as I survey the future foodscape, it isn't the feast that impresses me. A middle-class child of 20th century America, I am no longer amazed by a 25-pound turkey. What seems more rare is the family that will come to share it.

After all, this is what we have learned about our country, isn't it? That in America, food is plentiful but family is scarce.

That in America, Thanksgiving was once a day to be grateful for the good luck of the land. That now we celebrate something that seems every bit as subject to weather patterns and disasters: our endangered families. That the holiday is less about food and more about that scarcer source of human sustenance.

In 1943, when Norman Rockwell finished his classic painting, the turkey was the centerpiece of Thanksgiving. He drew an homage to Freedom From Want. In 1991, when our own eyes focus on that scene, family is the centerpiece. It's the family that we want.

There is more than a little truth in all this. At the supermarket, that urban acre that I work with a shopping cart, goods are sold in single servings. For most of the year, the turkey in the freezer comes packaged in parts for solitary eating.

In the wider world, we live more and more alone. Single-person households are the fastest growing part of our population. A single-person household is not a family.

But, setting the table for 19 people who come together from eight different households to one family gathering, I wonder if we haven't exaggerated the weakness of our family ties. Do we have an unrealistic portrait in our minds and memories of a Rockwell family? Does that image cloud the strengths of our own?

A series of surveys have been released in the past week. They show that Americans feel intensely the stresses of family life. But also the satisfactions.

By huge margins, we think relationships with our own children are good or excellent, but that family values are weaker than they used to be. We find our own families the most satisfying parts of our lives, but think that it's harder to be a parent ''than it used to be.'' In one of these surveys 80 percent of Americans said they wouldn't give up Thanksgiving dinner with their families for even $1,000.

Well, I will not test this last theory with thousand-dollar options at my door. But I wonder at the internal conflicts that one pollster described as the ''I'm OK, but you're not'' syndrome. Why do we believe that our own family attachments and strengths are an exception in a sea of dissolution?

When the airports and highways are clogged, Americans are not just going home for the giblets. When we pull up a million bridge chairs to tables laden with one cousin's pumpkin pie and another's turkey dressing, it isn't just to debate the merits of gravy. It's to reaffirm our belonging.

So it is here as well. Soon this house will be filled with lemon pie and stories. It will echo with people bound together by blood, affection, time, shared pride, even common tragedies, and the collective terror that someone will break one of Grandma Celia's dishes. On such a day, not so rare after all, it is the harvest of family that marks my sense of good fortune.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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