Waite: A three-decade Thanksgiving tradition is born after the family was sad

Thanksgiving changed for my mother-in-law the day her mother fell.

It happened just before St. Patrick’s Day 1990, when Mary’s parents were traveling in North Carolina and her mother broke her hip. At the time, Mary’s mother, Margaret, had been living with Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade, and at age 74, her mind and body had begun to shut down. She never really recovered after the fall.

“It was just awful,” my mother-in-law said of Margaret’s final months. In 1990, Mary spent weekends traveling to Hampton, Virginia, to see a mother who was having trouble recognizing her own relatives. Meanwhile, Mary’s father, John, was exhausted after ten years of being Margaret’s primary caregiver.

Margaret died a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 1990.

At the time, the family’s Thanksgiving tradition was to go to Mary’s parents’ house in Hampton. Mary and my father-in-law, Peter, would drive three hours from the Washington area with their two daughters, while Mary’s brother, Rick, would make the short drive from Williamsburg, Virginia, with his wife and three children.

Thanksgiving in Hampton was nothing special, my mother-in-law said. Margaret would do most of the cooking, and the family of 11 would join a dinner set on picnic and card tables in the completed garage.

But that first Thanksgiving after Margaret’s death was just too sad, my mother-in-law said. Mary’s father, normally the linchpin of the party, was depressed.

“We couldn’t cheer him up and we couldn’t cheer ourselves up,” said Mary.

My mother-in-law remembers standing next to her brother Rick, both arms folded. They looked at each other and decided in unison that they couldn’t have Thanksgiving in Hampton again.

But where would they gather? Rick’s home in Williamsburg was too small. Mary’s house in Alexandria was too far away and Rick had to drive through too much traffic.

Then the siblings remembered the occasional family trips they had taken to the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They had only been away a few times, and always in the summer, but Mary said she and her brother had magical memories of their childhood days on the beach.

So for Thanksgiving 1991, the family started the tradition of renting a house on the Outer Banks. With the exception of the pandemic-disrupted 2020, the tradition has been going on for over 30 years.

The tradition started with a three-night rental in a house that the family of 10 split for no more than $200, Mary said. As an indication of the general upkeep of the house, Mary & Co. fishing a dead bird out of the fireplace.

This year, the Outer Banks tradition will be a week-long event, with more than 25 people sharing a smorgasbord of a Thanksgiving meal in a three-story house that sits on stilts. The family now ranges in age from my 1 year old son to 79 year old Aunt Marian.

Some years the weather is so gray and stormy that people have to force themselves to take beach walks. Other times the sun shines so brightly that the kids – with rolled-up trousers – don’t want to stop being chased by the waves.

The annual trip to the beach has been the site of weddings and baby showers, and has welcomed many family members. (In 2011, I was introduced to Mary’s side of the family on the Outer Banks when my wife, Kathleen, and I had only been dating for eight months.)

There was the year when everyone agreed to wear orange, the national color of the Netherlands, to play a prank on cousin Wiebe, who is from the Netherlands. Perhaps that was the reward for the year Wiebe poured cold water from the deck onto the crowd in the hot tub below?

There was also the year when a horse came into the house. Cousin Amy, who used to work at a vet, brought a wild horse that roamed the beaches of Corolla halfway to the house so Amy could stand on the steps and examine his teeth.

Some rental properties are as far south as Buxton, while others are 80 miles north in Corolla. There is usually billiards downstairs and boules on the beach. There is always a jigsaw puzzle going on. There have been boat trips, bike rides and windsurfing adventures.

But much of the time is spent chatting in the living room.

If members of the family are at a difficult point in their lives for whatever reason, so much the better, Mary said.

“You were glad you went, because then you belonged to that time,” she said.

That’s what Thanksgiving is all about, after all. It’s being together. It’s a few days away from busy routines and slowing down to eat, laugh and teach your cousins ​​how to play foosball.

Mary hopes the Outer Banks tradition can continue, but she also knows that reality can eventually get in the way. Every year seems to get more expensive and lives are constantly changing – my in-laws now live in Seattle.

Mary knows that as children and families grow, so does their time. When the tradition started, she was a mother of two young girls. Now she is a grandmother of four children under 8.

When it’s time for a new tradition, Mary says she’ll make peace with it. She still thinks back to the family’s first Thanksgiving on the beach. At night, after the kids were asleep, she and her brother, Rick, went out on the deck to look at the clear, shimmering sky. Mary recalls feeling calm and content in that moment—very different from the grief she and her family had faced a year earlier.

On the other hand, Mary said, wherever she goes, she and her family always manage to find stars.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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Categories: Andrew Waite, Opinion, Opinion

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