The Bradleys -- together as always Holiday gathering: The Bradleys have gone through many changes, but getting together for Thanksgiving dinner has been a family tradition.


DELMAR -- Bradleys have farmed the Eastern Shore for close to a century now. Over the years, family traditions for Thanksgiving have sprung up, taken root and then been replaced by others. But one thing never changes: No matter what they eat or where they eat it, the Bradleys eat together during the holiday.

This year, four generations will sit down together: Myrtle and William Bradley, their nine children, 11 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter will share turkey, ham and kinship.

It is a movable feast, the Bradley dinner. This year, it is passing to a new generation, crossing the Chesapeake to the Western Shore -- the latest adjustment made by a family with a history of holiday flexibility.

"Everybody would come home -- they'd go to Mother's," recalls Betsy Bradley Lowe, William and Myrtle Bradley's eldest child, of Thanksgivings past. "But it began to be a struggle when my children came along. We began to feel pulled between our own family and our spouses' families. So along about 1967, Mother began to have the dinner on Sunday and Thanksgiving Day was with our spouses."

The family will celebrate together on Sunday this year, but instead of convening at her parents' house near Hebron, the Bradleys will gather in Calvert County, at the Prince Frederick home of Mrs. Lowe's brother Bill, and his wife, Elaine.

The senior Bradleys are in their 70s and their children have decided that assembling a Thanksgiving dinner for 40, even with the customary covered-dish assist, is too much for them.

"When you have a family as big as ours you have to make changes," says Mrs. Lowe.

Twenty-four years and seven siblings separate Mrs. Lowe, the eldest Bradley child, from her youngest brother, George. Mrs. Lowe is 54 and a grandmother; Mr. Bradley is 30 with a wife and a little girl.

No matter -- the family ties that bind reach easily across the years between them as they sit in her kitchen the week before Thanksgiving, going over this year's arrangements for the big meal. They speak fondly and often of family members, past and present, here and gone.

"We had the privilege, the pleasure, of knowing our grandparents," says Mrs. Lowe. "They were part of our holidays, our tradition."

"To talk to other people, it seems families don't get together," says Mr. Bradley.

Maybe other families don't, or can't -- but this one does. Eight of the children of Myrtle and William Bradley live in Maryland, six of them in Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore. One sister lives in Roxboro, N.C.

When they gather Sunday on the Western Shore, three tables will be set. There will be a buffet with turkey, ham, green beans, potatoes, rolls, sweet-potato biscuits, candied yams, maybe some macaroni and cheese.

When the family gathered in Wicomico County, there were plenty of covered dishes on the buffet, but not this year.

"It's too far for them to transport most foods and keep them warm," says Elaine Bradley. So she will cook most of the meal, adding some new foods to the traditional dishes.

"Over there [on the Eastern Shore], they do oyster fritters," she says. "I have no earthly idea how to do those. We do individually fried oysters over here." She'll add something else new, too: homemade cranberry sauce.

"It's really a relish," she says of the cranberry mixture, which contains oranges and other fruits. "I've been making it for years. That's a tradition in my family."

For the rest, she says, it will be "whatever I can cook in two days." Although she is an only child, she is accustomed through church and her job as a vocational teacher to feeding large groups, so she is not intimidated by expecting "between 30 and 50" for dinner.

"It's not the food that matters so much as it gives the family time to get together and visit," she explains with the wisdom of a seasoned cook. Her brother-in-law George puts it more simply: "There's always ample."

The three-hour dinner won't begin until Mrs. Bradley has assembled the meal, at around 4 p.m.

"It takes a little while," George Bradley says of the buffet line. "The first ones through are the kids; they have their own table."

When the adults have filled their plates and are seated, Mr. Bradley Sr., a Methodist, will offer an unscripted prayer of thanks to the Lord. "Daddy wings it. How long it is depends on how hungry he is," explains his son George.

Talk at the table will be a lot of "remember when," says Mrs. Lowe. "When there's nine of you, you go through everything with each other," she says. Childhood memories, squabbles, marriages, divorces, deaths, everything from broken bones to broken hearts -- the fabric of family life will be spread over the Bradleys' holiday table.

For dessert, there will be pies, a "Texas sheet cake" (double chocolate with chocolate icing, maybe some nuts) and Rice Krispies bars for the kids. The women will begin to plan Christmas -- the name-drawing for gifts, the meals -- and swap coupons, says Mrs. Lowe. The men will adjourn to another room "and talk about things we've built and things we haven't built," says her brother George.

And all of them will know: Same time, next year.

"It will continue somewhere. It may not be with Mom or Dad, or at Bill and Elaine's, but we will be together somewhere," says Mrs. Lowe.

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