Cherishing Thanksgiving Memories

Despite the tension that family gatherings sometimes inspire, it will do us all well to remember the good times from Thanksgivings past. Contributing Editor Harriette Cole shares hers.

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harriettecolewithfamily
Harriette Cole with her family in Florida, November 2004

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. I consider this holiday one part family, another part magic in a way. Why? Well, there always seems to be something out of the ordinary -- something memorable and at the same time classic -- waiting to happen.

When I was growing up in Baltimore, Thanksgiving was dress-up time. I grew up in a family that loves to celebrate. We had parties on the regular, the biggest of which was on Dec. 31, because my father was born on New Year's Day. But Thanksgiving was a different kind of gathering. When my sisters and I were really young, my family went to my father's sister Pearl's house for dinner. She always hosted a fancy meal, which I don't believe she cooked. She was a career woman, back when that was unusual. I just can't envision her sweating in front of a stove, but no matter. The food was Southern good.

The reason I remember her dinners so well is that she made special provisions for the children. The house was filled with grown folk, the dining table formally served for them. And we, the little people, had our own room, the living room, adorned with miniature tables and chairs complete with china set up for us too. All dressed up in our fancy clothes and patent leather shoes, we ate like royalty on that day. And we were so proud of our environs that we happily stayed at the table until we had all finished eating. Imagine!

As we got older and boys entered the picture, my daddy's rules came into full effect. It was our practice as a family to dress up for Sunday dinner as well as any other special event. Both my mother and father were always well-heeled, even on off days. So Thanksgiving was a time to decorate ourselves and our dining room.

Oh yeah, and our dates. If any male dared cross the threshold of Judge Cole's house to dine with his daughters, he had better look the part. That meant a jacket, a shirt and tie along with dress shoes, and absolutely no braids, cornrows or other hairstyles that were making their way into the fashion nomenclature by the mid-1970s. My daddy was conservative. We and our dates had to appear and behave in a proper manner or … well, there was no "or." That's just how it was.

Though the dining experience was very strict, it was lots of fun. My mother cooked a ton of healthy food. My father's sisters Audrey and Esther would bake and cook greens with ham hocks and other Southern delicacies that we weren't otherwise allowed. And my grandmother Carrie would make popovers. My daddy would always make a toast, using the gilded, carved crystal glasses that he and my mother had received as a wedding present a gazillion years before. And that's when we girls were allowed a sip of wine or champagne, whatever they were serving.

My father would say a formal prayer, and invariably my mother would add to the prayer, making a tearful entreaty to God about how grateful she and we must be for all the blessings our family had received that year. We passed our plates -- filling them just so with collards, ham, sweet potato pudding, corn pudding (my all-time favorite), cranberry sauce, sautéed string beans, and mac and cheese -- and swapped stories of the year, of triumphs and defeats. We enjoyed one another.

I continued to come home to the Cole-family table throughout my college years at Howard University and even after I first moved to New York City. I endured my father's incisive wit when I was the one wearing natural wild hair. (He told me that he would personally take me to the store to buy me a comb and brush! Naturally I was offended.) But I kept coming every year.

It wasn't until I met the man who would become my husband that I chose to spend Thanksgiving any other way. That first year, way before we married, he invited me to spend the holiday at a meditation retreat. It was one of the most uplifting experiences I have ever had. And thank God, my parents gave their blessing for me to go.

Three years later, when George and I got married -- some 17 years ago -- the family ritual changed for good. Because I couldn't imagine not being at home in Baltimore with my family at Christmas and New Year's to celebrate my father's big day, we decided to go to Florida to visit my husband's family for Thanksgiving and reserve Baltimore for Christmas.