Tinkering with Thanksgiving Traditions

by Memoir Mentor on November 24, 2012

This year I decided to break with Thanksgiving tradition. People who know me might find this surprising. I’m generally not a risk taker. I’m an eldest-daughter type–always the responsible one. But I’ve been stepping over some serious lines lately, like taking up with the Democrats after a life-long allegiance to the Republican Party. Maybe I’m going through a way-late mid-life crisis of some sort, who knows?

My rupture with Thanksgiving tradition had its beginnings some weeks ago with my decision to celebrate Thanksgiving on Wednesday this year instead of Thursday. It was my eldest son’s year to gather with the in-laws, and Number Two Son said he’d prefer to come when his brother’s family was there. I got it. I, too, wanted everyone together, so we adjusted, an easy fix.

I figure I’ve hosted more than three-dozen Thanksgiving dinners during my marriage. I’ve mastered the basics and haven’t deviated much from the tried and true. Like your family, we’ve loved it just the way it is.

But changing the day suddenly gave me license to look at other Thanksgiving traditions with a critical eye. I grew up learning that once you put one toe over the line, you were looking at all the way. Afraid of risk, I never tested the theory…until now.

“When did the tradionally baked turkey become so sacrosanct?” the “new me” asked herself after viewing Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa” a few weeks ago. I had just watched Ina create what she called a Turkey Roulade made from a five-pound, boneless turkey breast rolled jelly-roll-style with turkey stuffing. It looked good…and it looked soooo easy the way she did it. Why not? Who says I needed to do things the same old way? So, I ordered my turkey breast from the butcher, and followed Ina’s instructions to the letter, watching the online video of the roulade-roll-up several times to make sure that I did.

The roll-up thing wasn’t quite as neat and easy as Ina made it look—natch—but my family raved. They rave no matter what, so it’s hard to get an accurate reading from that limited demographic. Frankly, I thought it tasted pretty great, but I’ve always been a white meat person. The most effusive praise came from my husband who proclaimed the Contessa’s stuffing recipe the best he ever tasted! “We should do turkey this way next year,” he said, “make it a new tradition!”

Upon reflection, I decided there was other “stuff” behind this stuffing accolade. I had effectively taken away his main Thanksgiving chore—carving the turkey. He always hated the spotlight being turned on him every year as he considered anew how to tackle the job. Things rarely went according to plan, the tension palpable as everyone looked on while the mashed potatoes and gravy cooled on the sideboard. His sons—now men—have increasingly been throwing in their two cents, adding to the strain. Then there was that dangling, dripping carcass to dispose of…. Well, Ina and I had eliminated all that in one fell swoop. All the pressure was gone. “Carving” was now as simple as slicing bread.

We all had a great day together, as good as any Thanksgiving ever was. Even though it was on Wednesday. Even though I’d messed with the tried-and-true. Change can be good.

On Thursday morning, my husband and I awoke to a quiet house. All the dishes and pots and pans from the day before had been washed and put away, the leftovers snugly stored in the refrigerator. I laid in bed thinking about the women all over America who were wrestling with their turkeys, peeling potatoes, rolling out pie dough. Been there done that. Whatever would we do with the long day ahead?

I rolled over in bed and put the question to my half-asleep husband. The day was ours to do with as we pleased. What a luxury. We decided to take in a movie—not one, but TWO. How fun would that be? Are theaters open on Thanksgiving? They are.  It felt a little like desecrating the Sabbath at first, but those thoughts soon left me as the theater darkened and I dipped into my tub of hot buttered popcorn. Yum! It was surely a day to feel grateful.



Tasting the Sweetness of Gratitude

by Memoir Mentor on October 23, 2012

I returned Sunday from the international conference of the Association of Personal Historians (APH), held in St. Louis this year. I’ve attended the APH conference on many occasions and have often spoken to their organization, as I did this year. I always return home full of ideas for expanding my personal historian’s repertoire and enough renewed motivation to carry me through until the next conference. I’ve never belonged to an organization with so many bright, generous, like-minded people. Strand us all on a deserted island and we’d probably spend our days scratching our stories on palm fronds and sailing them out with the tide to be found by people in another day.

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard people at the conference say “I love what I do,” or “I can’t believe I found this wonderful profession,” or “I see myself doing this for the rest of my life.” There’s something about helping people record their story for posterity that satisfies our primal need to commemorate the human story, to halt the march of time, to validate the best in all of us.

The process alone fills me with enough gratitude and satisfaction to keep me going. Occasionally, however, someone reaches out with a word of thanks for a service rendered that feels like icing on the cake. I tasted a bit of that sweetness when I returned from the conference and found that my husband had placed a letter on my desk. The letter was written to both of us by Shelly Airmet, who lives in Kamas, Utah. Not knowing our address, Shelly had sent it to our publisher, who forwarded it to us. I’ve transcribed it below in its entirety, with Shelly’s permission. Read on and you’ll surely understand how this letter made me feel, but more than that, its inspiring message will likely convince more of you to keep working on your own stories so you can taste the deep satisfaction Shelly so beautifully describes.


Dear Morrie and Dawn,
I never thought I could write my parents’ and my own life story, so it is with much gratitude for your expertise and knowledge that I write this letter. About three years ago my older brother (by twenty years) asked if I would write about my relationship and childhood with our parents as their daughter. You see, our parents had eight children, starting with five brothers and then three daughters who came later in life. I am the caboose of the family. So life with the boys first would prove to be a different experience for them. The challenge was that my brother would also write his feelings from a son’s point of view.

I like a challenge, but after several discouraging starts, I wasn’t sure if I was up for the task. That was until I walked into our family office and noticed your book, Breathe Life into Your Life Story, a book that I was meant to find! My husband had purchased your book some years earlier to help with his own writing. Well, I was hooked from the moment I turned the first page. I read a bit and then wrote a bit and took notes all along the way within the book. I laughed and I cried as your book helped me to be honest and record memories from my heart. I wrote a life story to honor my dear parents and one that I could be proud of for future generations.

Brad, my husband, surprised me by having my story bound like a real book, and I was able to present the book to all my brothers and sisters at our family reunion in June. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your taking the time to help me accomplish something that seemed way out of my league.

Grateful always,
Shelly Airmet


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Got Politics on Your Mind? Why Not Write about It?

by Memoir Mentor on October 11, 2012

I‘m as involved in the presidential election as most of you, maybe more. I can’t wait to read the newspaper each morning to see what the polls say. I also get my news from the Internet, particularly Google News. It’s updated every few minutes, so I don’t have to wait for the morning paper.

Things were different a few decades ago–before the Internet, before televised debates, before 24-hour TV news stations kept us “informed” and jittery. Some of my students remember sitting with their parents in front of the radio listening to FDR’s fireside chats, or staying up all night to hear who won. They recall with nostalgia the days when people weren’t so blasé about voting or cynical about politicians and the whole political process.

I’ve asked my students to write about their political beliefs and behavior. Who did they vote for, and why? What issues and candidates were they passionate about? How have their ideas changed over time? All these details reveal a great deal about who we are and the events that shaped our lives. And they make good stories, too. See, for example the wonderful story below written by long-time student Kathleen Anderson. I bet you’ve got a similar story you can write.

VOTING in 1956
by Kathleen Anderson

The look on my father’s face crushed my vibrant spirit. I had been so excited all day. It was November 7, 1956.

It was a pivotal year for me. I graduated from nursing school and had a regular paycheck from my position as afternoon Charge Nurse of a medical floor at St. Joseph Hospital in Detroit. I shared an apartment with two friends while keeping my home town, Garden City, as my official residence. I even opened my first credit card with Winklemen’s, a women’s clothier. I made plans for my future and attended Wayne State University. And for the first time, I could vote in an election, a presidential one at that. Life was good.

In the fall, Father John Ross, pastor of St. Raphael Catholic Church in my home town, had given a sermon about voting as a moral obligation. The line I remember most was that Hungary lost its freedom by one vote.

Politics had long intrigued me, probably from watching my parents listening to FDR Fireside Chats and seeing them glued to the radio in the living room during the 1943 elections, following every bit by bit report of how the votes were tallying. Groans when Roosevelt’s opponent was ahead were quickly drowned out by cries of glee when FDR moved into first place. My parents had lived through political upheavals in Ireland in the early 1900s as that country sought independence from England. Having a say in their government here was a priceless gift to them.

That enthusiasm invaded my soul early on. When FDR was declared the winner, I joined in their excitement, mostly because it was contagious, even though I did not fully understand the significance. By the time of FDR’s death, I had studied enough history to begin to grasp how important elections were. I began to read more than the comic pages.

I started carefully reading the two newspapers in Detroit, The Detroit News and The Free Press. Eisenhower was running for his second term as president on the Republican ticket. I was impressed by this general’s war feats and his ending of the Korean War in 1953. I had become aware of the growth of Communism and regarded it as a threat to our nation.

In 1955, a film was released about Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary–a Catholic priest who had been accused of treason by the Communist regime and brutally tortured–leaving a big impact on me. Eisenhower declared himself anti-communist. I did not see Adalai Stevenson, the Democrat candidate, as strong enough.

November 7, 1956, found me at the city hall, ready to do my duty. I dressed for the occasion–two-inch black heels, a small black purse, my dark blue coat and hat, and black gloves. This was a serious event.

I had registered as a Democrat, just like my parents. I surmised that they voted a straight Democratic ticket. I never asked anyone else how they registered, nor how they voted. That inhibition probably came from my parents. The secret ballot was a inviolable trust.

Standing in line to wait my turn, I felt a sense of pride. With pleasure, I signed my name in the register. This, more than anything else, declared me a citizen of the United States. The awesomeness of the secret ballot made the moment almost sacred. I took my papers into the curtained booth and proceeded to mark my choices. I had studied all the candidates and the issues and felt well qualified to cast my vote.

It was soul-satisfying to watch my sealed ballot drop into the secured collection box. I stood up straighter, tried to control the smile that threatened to engulf my face, and walked out the building, a fully realized citizen.

My sister Noreen, who was also voting for the first time, greeted me at our parents’ house. We shared our pride, more by the smile we gave each other than anything else. Our dad was home and asked us if we had voted. With pleasure we both said yes! Looking at our smiling faces, he said “You both voted for Eisenhower.”

The sorrow on his face was almost palpable. My joy seeped away. I still remember.