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Margaret Renkl: All the empty seats at the Thanksgiving table

(Courtesy Margaret Renkl via The New York Times) The author with her grandmother, her great grandmother, right, and her mother, rear.

Nashville — In the box of old photos I found after my mother’s death, there’s a picture of me taken on Thanksgiving Day 1983, in the fall of my senior year of college. I’m lying on the sofa reading James Agee’s letters to Father Flye.

(Courtesy Margaret Renkl via The New York Times) The author at home in 1983.

I don’t know why the photo exists — we were not a family who documented ordinary moments. Our pictures centered on people gathered around birthday cakes and Christmas trees. Film wasn’t wasted on someone who has no idea a picture is being taken. Certainly not on someone who isn’t even smiling.

I remember that day, not because it was documented in a photograph but because I ran into my Shakespeare professor outside the liberal arts building on Monday morning, and he asked me how I’d spent the break. “All I did was eat and sleep and read James Agee,” I told him. “That sounds like the perfect Thanksgiving,” he said.

Maybe I remember that conversation because it startled me. It had not felt like the perfect Thanksgiving. My great-grandmother, the quiet, steady, patient anchor of the entire extended family, was missing. She’d broken her hip the year before, at 96, and then pneumonia — “the old folks’ friend,” my great-grandfather, a country doctor, called it — had taken hold. Mother Ollie was still herself right until up until the day she fell, and I suppose that’s what my great-grandfather must have meant by “friend”: that there are fates worse than death for the very aged. But a year later, the empty place at the table still felt like a rebuke. As with every death before or since, I could not get over the shock. How can love not be enough to save someone so deeply loved?

A year earlier, too, my grandmother had barely survived a shooting that shattered the feeling of safety in her close-knit farming community. She recovered, eventually, but she always needed help after that, and holidays shifted to our house. All the Thanksgiving gatherings of my childhood, the sideboards laid with pies and casseroles and corncakes glistening with butter, with bowls of creamed corn and lady peas; the arrangements of pink camellias and the delicate custard dishes of ambrosia, each with a sprinkling of coconut on top; the rocking on the porch afterward, the catching-up talk and the stories about loved ones long since buried in the graveyard just down the road — all of it was gone.

One year my grandmother was still cooking the feast she had always prepared, and the next year it was just our family at our own ordinary house in the ordinary suburbs. Overnight, it seemed, my mother became the de facto matriarch, and it was not a role she ever came to relish.

Mom would have been happy to serve stuffing out of a box and cranberry sauce out of a can, but my father could not surrender the traditions he had acquired by marriage. A child of the Depression, growing up with a single mother forced to travel for work, he spent most of his childhood in what amounted to an orphanage. Having gained an extended family at the age of 32, he would not give up the groaning table so easily and thereafter pitched in as a wholehearted sous chef. Mother Ollie took the recipe for corncakes with her to the grave, but the scaled-back Thanksgiving menu at our house included almost all the other favorites — plus, it must be said, some horrific innovations, like brandied fruit and cranberry Jell-O mold, that my mother must have picked up from a magazine.

After I left home, I came to recognize the gift of those gatherings, of being with my family together under one roof, but Thanksgiving never stopped reminding me of that homely old house in the country with pecan trees to climb and cousins to play with and bird dogs sleeping in a patch of sunshine in the yard. Of all the empty seats at the table.

Now I am the matriarch, the one who cuts the flowers and puts them in vases, the one who spends days in the kitchen with my husband, chopping and sautéing and stirring and buttering, all for the sake of two hours at the table with everyone we love. I admit that there have been times when I was cross about it all. Times when, like my mother, I didn’t want to be the matriarch. Why hadn’t I understood, all those years before, what luck it was to be the cherished child returning home, with a whole day set aside for eating and sleeping and reading the intoxicating words of James Agee?

But now I am wondering why I haven’t always appreciated the crowded house and the days of preparation for the two-table feasts of my own matriarch years. In this pandemic holiday, no one will gather here but our adult children, and once again there will be too many empty seats at the table. That’s a metaphor, of course: In fact there will be no table, for we’ll be sitting outside with our plates in our laps, trusting the distance and the open air to keep us safe.

If my sons ever look back at photos of this gathering from the vantage of decades, they will surely see a poor approximation of their own Thanksgivings past: no aunts and uncles this year, no cousins, no beloved friends. The pictures won’t remind them that when it came time for the blessing, we gave thanks that our bouts with the virus have all been relatively mild, or that we prayed for the families, more than a quarter of a million already, who will have empty chairs at their own tables forever after. That we prayed for our country as winter came on.

But maybe they will remember the joy of being together for a little while, if only at a distance, and the quiet pleasure of an unencumbered afternoon at the end of a hard, hard year. I hope they will know somehow, even if no one thinks to tell them, that such days are rare — and truly perfect.

Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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