When I was a young boy my family gathered for Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house on Long Island. It was usually a fairly small affair, perhaps a dozen or so family members and an occasional friend. When my grandmother died suddenly my grandfather decided that without her help he would give up hosting. By that time my parents had divorced and lived mostly overseas, so for a while I bounced around among various relatives.
Several years later my mother, Katharine Tweed, bought a house on Tashmoo in Vineyard Haven. We began celebrating Thanksgiving at our new home. At first we were a small group. My godfather, Freddie, was often there, as was mother’s oldest friend, Margie, accompanied by whichever husband she was married to at the time. Usually there were some cousins and occasionally a single man or woman who had no family to visit. Once in awhile I brought a girlfriend. We ate at our modest kitchen table.
The first permanent guest was Charles, one of my oldest friends. I had met him when I was in college. One day I woke up to find him sleeping on my couch. He had come to a party in the dorm suite next door, and late in the evening his hosts suggested he crash in my suite knowing I would not mind. Although he went to college in a different city we nonetheless become good friends. His family came from the Caribbean, but had lived in the United States for a couple of generations. His father was a successful doctor in a blue collar white neighborhood on Long Island, not an easy road for a very dark-skinned African American. Charles started coming to Thanksgiving about the second or third year, occasionally bringing friends of his from Oak Bluffs.
As more years went by one of the girlfriends became my wife and not long after my son, Winthrop, arrived. He was two months old when he celebrated his first Thanksgiving in our house. Around this time Charles introduced some friends of his — Pat and Howard and their infant daughter, who had a place in Chilmark. Howard was a professor of sociology at Princeton and Pat a corporate lawyer. They were both African Americans breaking new ground. We were still a small group and dinner remained in the kitchen, albeit on a slightly extended table.
Much as the bufflehead ducks each fall seem to pop up from under the surface of Tashmoo in front of our house, more and more guest began to appear. First it was my new daughter, Amanda. Then over the next few years up popped more; some were singles who might have otherwise spent Thanksgiving alone and others were whole families. Two families from North Dakota where I had spent some time began coming in alternating years.
However, perhaps the most memorable group, ever since known as the Mongolian invasion, was a four-generational family which I had gotten to know in Cambridge. The father, Elbegdorj, was attending a program at the Kennedy School at Harvard in between serving terms as Mongolia’s prime minister. He came with his wife, her grandmother (who spoke only Mongolian and wore a wonderful long silk robe), their two teenaged boys and their two new boys, a toddler and an infant. Clearly we could no longer fit in the kitchen so we put a long table in the living room.
Over the years the group continued to grow. My kids were bigger and began to bring friends. My wife and I divorced, and after a few years a new girlfriend, Leslie, appeared. Another permanent arrival was a couple, who own a house at Hines Point, and who some years later would celebrate one of the first gay marriages in Massachusetts. Around that time we were joined by an older man, Fred, a world famous research doctor at Harvard who had for several years been my mentor and good friend. A year or two later, he brought his friend, Irma, also a world-renowned research doctor, who had been born in Argentina but lived in California. She too became a permanent guest. Many others came for a year or two.
After awhile, Leslie and I decided to get married. When Thanksgiving rolled around, we invited her children. Her daughter was on the West Coast, so at first that was not practical, but her son lived in Boston so he came. After a year or so, he announced that splitting Thanksgiving between his father’s home on Chappaquiddick and ours on Tashmoo was logistically difficult, so why didn’t we just combine the two events? The next year we had Leslie’s ex-husband, Terry, his new wife, Bonnie, and her kids. We were running out of room in the living room but still managed to squeeze in for the next couple of years.
By this time Pat and Howard’s grown-up daughter, Carla, had acquired a boyfriend who in due course became a husband. On the minus side, my mentor, Fred, had died. Some of the relatives had passed on as well, but the biggest gap was created when Charles succumbed to a long-term illness. He had been both my children’s and Carla’s godfather, and we all console ourselves with the thought that he will always be with us in spirit. Each year we toast: “To Uncle Charles!”
This year they are all coming back with some new additions. Carla and Ray have a beautiful baby girl, Olivia. Leslie’s daughter Julie is coming in from the coast with her new fiancé, Michael, and his parents, the prospective new in-laws. Also, one of the regular singles suddenly has a new boyfriend. Finally, my wife’s ex-mother-in-law, who has adopted me as an honorary son-in-law and my children as grandchildren, is coming, to everyone’s delight.
This will be our 40th Thanksgiving, and we expect 29 at the table. Clearly the living room is now too small. Because we insist on following the tradition that we all sit at one long table, the only option left is the porch, but it is open and it can be very cold on Martha’s Vineyard in November. We plan to have the porch encased in plastic sheeting, rent giant space heaters and hope for the best. If nothing else, friendships, some of years’ duration, others newly formed, will keep us warm with the help of perhaps not a little alcohol.
As I reflect on our upcoming Thanksgiving, it occurs to me that my family has come a long way from those first celebrations with my grandfather. They were wonderful affairs, but notable for their lack of diversity. This Thanksgiving we will have Protestants, Jews and Catholics, blacks, whites and Hispanics, westerners, southerners and easterners, gays and straights, wives and husbands and ex-wives and ex-husbands — and finally all ages from a baby to a couple of octogenarians. The food has changed a bit as well. We of course still have turkey, but this year we will have two; one will be deep fried in the Southern fashion in a huge pot of peanut oil. We will also need a very large ham. Sweet potato pie has become a regular, and on occasion “lefse,” a sort of potato pancake concoction considered essential by the Norwegians from North Dakota.
Since the time of my grandfather’s dinners, America has changed, mostly for the better. Almost without us noticing, so have our dinners and for this we are all very thankful. Mother and I agree that we believe that there is no other time and no other place anyone sitting around our table would rather be then on Martha’s Vineyard on a beautiful fall day, no matter what the weather, sharing our appreciation for what life has given us.
Tweed Roosevelt lives in Boston and West Tisbury.