Thursday, November 22, 2012

How Lonely Thanksgivings Powered
My Passion for Genealogy

Today, all across the United States—and, no doubt, within pockets of American life abroad—people are celebrating a tradition known as Thanksgiving.

Whether you are settling down to a typical Thanksgiving meal with “all the fixin’s” or taking your Turkey Day avant-garde, you are most likely to have included one essential ingredient: family.

Family. That was the very aspect, when I was growing up, that turned my Thanksgiving weekends more cold and dreary than the New York weather. While my suburban neighborhood friends were off watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or settling in for an afternoon of football—or, worst of all, gone on a long trip to visit out-of-state relatives—I was outside, sitting on the milk box on our front step, surveying the bleak scene up and down the street.

No one was in sight. The neighborhood was eerily quiet. No games of kickball in the street. No one organizing hide-and-seek games. No circle of giggling girls telling secrets. The sound of the winter wind amplified when the daily noise of life vacated.

That wind, scattering dry wisps of leftover leaves, reminded me of how deserted the streets really were. And those steel-gray clouds overhead—a usual Thanksgiving accompaniment—made the neighborhood specter even more cheerless. There’s nothing so lonely as a Thanksgiving Day, when all your friends have somewhere else to go.

What all those other kids had—whether they liked it or not—that I didn’t have was extended family living nearby. Granted, from my childhood home’s vantage point, an hour’s drive could bring a traveling family to a number of different states. In contrast, our family would have to drive the entire length of Pennsylvania—a feat nearly insurmountable to a when-will-we-get-there ten-year-old—to even get within a three-hour’s drive from my grandparents’ home. I don’t think there was one year, during my childhood, when our family went anywhere to be with relatives.

But all my friends, it seemed, did.

Of course, the reverse was also true: there wasn’t one year in which we had any relatives come and visit us for Thanksgiving.

Perhaps it was because a one-day holiday was too short a time period for working people to travel long distances. We hadn’t yet reached the civilized stage of adjoining Black Friday to our Thanksgiving festivities to create a man-made four-day weekend.

And so I’d spend my Thanksgiving morning, sitting out in that blustery wind on that gray milk box, peering up and down the street in vain for signs of life—at least kid life—and thinking. Thinking about how much I’d rather have one of those big families where there were lots of aunts and uncles and two sets of grandparents. And cousins. Lots of cousins.

Of course, that would get me wondering where all my cousins were, and what they were doing for Thanksgiving Day. And why there were so precious few of them to be had.

In my mind, I’d wander the lines of an imaginary family tree, reaching up ever further in search of a link that would yield me some kind of cousin—my age mates were really first cousins once removed, anyhow, so I wondered if looking for second cousins would help fill the family void.

Try as I might to find a path to more family, of course there was none to find. Which left me out in the cold, pouting over what I couldn’t change.

Eventually, the turkey would be cooked, dinner would be served, and us-four-no-more would gather around the dinner table. We’d ooh and ahh over the picture-perfect bounty before us, bow our heads and say grace over what we were about to overeat, and enjoy a splendid meal. But we’d be seated with the same three other people we had eaten breakfast with—and the same ones we’d be sharing meals with the next day. It was special…but somehow, it seemed hollow. It missed having family

I suppose it was the yearly re-enactment of this same disappointing scenario that fueled my yearning to find family—more family. I wanted to know about all those family members who weren’t there at our yearly feast. And that led me to wonder about how we connected to that broader family picture. There had to be someone out there we could connect with—someone else we could call family.

Wherever that childish pout directed me, in the end I found myself wrapped up in a decades-long quest to find even more ancestors. If this day has brought me a special hunger for anything, it’s to draw closer to an increasing circle of family members—to get to know their stories, their lives and the times in which they lived.

In touching off that unquenchable desire, what lack I felt has certainly been redirected to a bounty of its own.

Perhaps, even the things we don’t have to be thankful for can lead us, in the end, to something for which we can give thanks.

Above: Charles Auguste Romain Lobbedez, "Family Time," oil on canvas; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Happy thanksging!

    I know you found some family this year (including a blogging family)

    The folks I grew up with having Thanksgiving with are all mostly dead now... but I am truly thankful for so many warm memories. Wonderful grandparents and aunts and uncles...

    1. Yes, Iggy, this year has been a year of bounty in that respect. And while it does hurt to know some are now no longer here to share these celebrations, you are right about the blessing of those many warm memories. I guess when we find ourselves at this pivot point with so many beloved family members gone, it means it's now our opportunity to turn around and be that special someone for those coming along behind us.

  2. Jacqi,
    Intense Guy said what I was thinking...You have a blogging family, friends never met but family in a way. Your quest for family has given you a true talent. You write beautifully and tell the storys that keep our attention and I love that. I wish I could write like you. Thank you for always reading my blogs and for your comments. I am thankful for friends that I will meet, perhaps not in this life but in Gods kingdom..A big family! Wow!
    Happy Thanksgiving, Jacqi!

    1. Thank you so much! I enjoy reading your blogs, too--and you are right: though we haven't met, we've become like family, checking in on what's new with each other, hoping the best for each other. It's the relationships that add that priceless element to life, and for that I'm most grateful!

  3. Happy Thanksgiving a day late! Most of the people I want to spend Thanksgiving with are parents are both from huge families. I would love to spend one more Thanksgiving at my memories of them are warm and cozy...and I could almost taste the stuffing with raisins and apples.
    Funny what we remember..I also remember washing dishes for hours:)

    1. With a family gathering that large, I bet you did your fair share of lots of dishes!

      These memories of those who are now gone are what you can turn around and pass on to your own grandchildren--and I know you are! Those memories are a gift in themselves.


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