The Seasonal Equivalent of Quality Time

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 26, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- My aunt and I are making stuffing and convening with our ancestors. It's a ritual we have performed each year since I inherited Thanksgiving from her. Or to be precise, since the family dinner moved one doorway and one generation down the street.

In truth, my aunt, who is eight inches shorter and 21 years older, still regards me as something of an apprentice in the Thanksgiving business, not entirely ready to strike out on my own. A bit too inexperienced to be entrusted with the awesome responsibilities of tradition.

Left to my own devices, who knows what would happen? Chestnuts could creep into the family stuffing. Sugar could disappear. This would not do.

After all, the ancestors with whom we are convening were not Pilgrims nor were they propertied. My entire inheritance is a soup pot, a roasting pan, memories and of course, recipes. The one that we follow this morning has been passed down as if it were carved on a family tabernacle: Thou shalt stuff thy turkey with onions, chicken fat, eggs, stale bread.

But neither my aunt nor my ancestors need worry that I will break faith with their past. I shall not: mix bread with olive oil, replace turkey with some other fish or fowl.

Over the years I have become a culinary conservative. Is that a term the political consultants have missed? Social liberal, culinary conservative? Do they have a seat in the focus groups for the everyday change advocate who is a holiday traditionalist?

I am hardly the only such hybrid creature. Any number of us Modernists, even Post-Modernists, become positively Victorian in this season. More than a few women who normally live at the pace of a microwave turn back to the days of a slow simmer. Many who have made their lives on the cutting edge of change are temporarily transformed into some composite Martha: Washington and Stewart.

It may be that the more our family lives change, the more we cling to these rituals, some skeleton of continuity. The more our family functions change, the more we may ask of their form.

Were my great-grandmother to join my table she would not find much familiar except the fare. The families of her generation were more permanent structures, put together for better or worse -- but for life -- by birth and marriage.

But my generation's guest lists may change more than our menu. They are rewritten also by divorce, remarriage, relationships that change as often as our ZIP codes.

Family life also once had an economic and social purpose, a religious imperative. Families were larger and their members more likely to live together. Two generations ago, when my grandmother was young, families were thought of as economic units, institutions operating like, and on, farms or businesses.

Today the sustenance we expect from family life is essentially emotional. Our families, like our marriages, are usually kept together now by affection, and choice. What we want from family life is something sorely lacking from the world: a sense of belonging.

But this strictly emotional tie seems like a more fragile bond than the one that held our elders together. And so we try to wrap it in traditions to give it strength.

If we have fewer family dinners, why then, we will have more elaborate family feasts. If daily unions are more difficult to sustain, why then, we will celebrate annual reunions.

Our holidays have become the seasonal equivalent of quality time. Our families have become special occasions. We cannot take them for granted.

So we become holiday traditionalists to connect with each other over family time and tales. We sustain tradition as a way of recreating for each other our sense of belonging to each other.

As for me, a certified culinary conservative, I stand here dutifully mixing eggs and bread and onions and chicken fat -- a cardiologist's nightmare, a Mylanta special -- happily following my aunt's instructions and my grandmother's recipe. But at the same time, I recognize that it is really our appetite for togetherness that we will bring to this Thanksgiving table.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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