We gather together

The people who gather around the Thankgiving table this year are not taking the holiday for granted.

November 18, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun staff

Mom-mom will have her best china out. The smell of roasting turkey will fill the air. The TV will be tuned to football, but who knows if anyone will be watching. More likely three generations will be sitting around the living room, talking and laughing, trading stories, and recalling favorite memories of year's past.

Thanksgiving at Anne Roberts' little house in Grove Park, a tiny enclave in Northwest Baltimore, will be pretty much the same this year.

But in some ways, it won't be the same at all.

Paula Tolson, Anne's oldest daughter, predicts the hugs will be a little tighter and last a little longer, the tears come more easily, the sense of gratitude - of profound thanks - will require no extra incentive.

This is a snapshot of American life 10 weeks after Sept. 11: If Thanksgiving were ever a day for family, then this is surely the year. We have witnessed tragedy and now feel the need to draw closer to those we love.

Anne's grandchildren include a Manhattan office worker and a postal employee, but that hardly makes this family unique. In many others, relatives will have to fly long distances to come home for the holiday. Or there are sons and daughters who won't be home at all because they live overseas, or serve in the armed services, or work as firefighters or police officers or a hundred other dangerous jobs.

"This is the year to be thankful to be alive, and in good health and to be able to enjoy family," says Paula, 52, who lives with her mother in Grove Park.

It is also time to draw comfort from each other - just as Anne (known as Mom-mom since her oldest grandchild was a baby), her daughters and granddaughters plan to do.

"We're back to basics and the message is that we're here for each other," Paula says.

Of course, she has always been considered the "mushy" one in the family. She'll also serve as the evening's primary chef - as she has for years.

Turkey will be on the menu. But so will macaroni and cheese and rack of lamb, sauerkraut, sweet potatoes, cream of crab soup, cranberry dressing, blueberry muffins, and collard greens that Paula will probably have to start cooking today.

There's more, too, but those are the highlights. Some of the more unusual selections like lamb and crab soup are special requests, either from Paula's daughter Bria or her niece Taryn Green. Both are craving homemade cooking.

Bria, 21, is a senior at New York Institute of Technology on Long Island studying advertising; Taryn, 26, lives in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan at a small public relations agency not far from the financial district.

Ramona Green, Taryn's mother (and Paula's younger sister), got a scare on Sept. 11 when she couldn't reach her daughter by telephone all day because the lines were jammed. But the two finally connected that evening when an exasperated Taryn (unaware of the phone problems) finally dialed up her mother and wanted to know, "How come you didn't call?"

They both laugh about that now. But they also get a little sentimental. They haven't seen each other for six months and they long to be together.

"Not that I didn't think my family was important before, but now you see just how important they are," says Taryn. "Tomorrow is not promised."

Of course, it doesn't help that Ramona's other daughter goes to work each day with a pair of gloves and a mask in hand. Shayna, 23, works for the post office delivering mail on a rural route out of the Ellicott City branch.

They've talked about the risk of anthrax. Both believe the danger's pretty small, but Ramona secretly worries. Although they share a townhouse in Catonsville, their conversations rarely touch on this occupational hazard - Ramona doesn't want to pass along her fears.

"I don't want to stress her. I don't want her to take that with her everywhere she goes," says Ramona, 51, an early childhood curriculum specialist for the city's public school system.

Thanksgiving has always been an important day in Anne Roberts' family, maybe the biggest holiday of the year. Even now, the family is more likely to be reunited for Thanksgiving dinner than for Christmas.

Anne, a soft-spoken but energetic grandmother of three, fondly remembers the big Thanksgiving gatherings her mother and mother-in-law would hold long ago in West Baltimore. She'd dress her daughters in their best white gloves and patent leather shoes. (She is old enough to remember the Depression, incidentally, but would rather her exact birthday didn't appear in print.)

The big attraction at these dinners was usually her mother's homemade wine, beer and home brew, a soft drink much like root beer. The gatherings were so huge that guests had to eat in shifts and the children were consigned to the basement.

"They were all memorable dinners," Anne says. "Just the fact that our out-of-town relatives came made it special."

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