Thanksgiving officially became my favorite holiday in 1984. Looking back on that year, when I was 13, I remember it as my initial taste of adulthood, when I felt for the first time I was participating in the grown-up world, and I loved it.
My family had just moved to a new house in the College View Drive development of Hackettstown, New Jersey, providing us with many friends and neighbors within walking distance. My mom decided to host Thanksgiving that year, and invited our good friends the Hines family, Roger and Joyce and their kids Roddy, Amy and Kevin.
My mom and Joyce slaved in the kitchen for days, preparing a turkey and stuffing, a ham, corn, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and a half dozen more side dishes, and the desserts. In addition to a delicious feast, their joint labors also gave birth to traditions that endured for years, many to the present day. The Hines and Morgan families celebrated Thanksgiving together for nearly two decades, and while I can identify that magical year as the starting point of so many traditions, the wonderful reminiscences of those Thanksgivings are jumbled together in my mind, and it’s impossible to say which of my favorite memories fell in which years.
Here are the constants: The autumnal table was set, with the bird, the ham and the sides. Then the two families took turns raising glasses of Asti Spumante and making toasts and listing the things we were thankful for, even the kids. My Dad called the name of an adult or child and for a moment you had the floor, glass in hand. Once you’d made your toast and listed your blessings, the pay-off was a small taste of champagne. In years to come, when I invited friends, I would be sure to prep them so they’d be ready with a few words. That first Thanksgiving, all I was able to muster was gratitude for new traditions and for the love of my family. In the years to come, I’d rely on a few sips of champagne and the pressure of the moment as I crafted my perfect one-sentence toast while passing the rolls.
After dinner, my mom, Joyce, Amy and I did the dishes while my Dad and Roger sat at the table sipping Sambuca. This is when they’d talk with the five kids, whose ages that first year ranged from 8 to 14, about football and other sports, history and school, and we would expound on the colleges we wanted to attend and the careers we’d pursue when we grew up. I remember telling Roger one year that I’d write a book, and other times that I’d become a lawyer or a politician – this last ambition one that he himself actually pursued later, when he was elected mayor of Hackettstown. Those conversations felt so grown up, and they became even more so once I was old enough to join in the after-dinner drinks too.
After dinner came the desserts, pumpkin, apple and lemon meringue pies. Then throngs of guests began to arrive, and the music would change to the hits of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and the living room would erupt in singing and dancing. One year, all of the kids stood on chairs and serenaded the parents with the hit by the Who, “Squeezebox.” Another year, Roger danced out the front door to War’s “Low Rider.”
That first year, 1984, after many hours of toasting and giving thanks, my dad wanted to honor every neighbor who had taken the time to join our first annual Thanksgiving feast on College View. With me at the piano, my dad and I warbled our way through his favorite song from The Muppet Movie, “The Rainbow Connection.” After the first singing, my dad really got into it. Throughout the evening, when he deemed that a quorum of new guests had arrived, he would summon me back to the piano, and we would sing it again. We must have sung it at least six times.
“Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors.
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”
To end that evening, Joyce and Roger and my parents and the rest of the guests joined arms in a circle, did high kicks and belted out the words to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” while I banged it out on the piano.
At the Morgan household pretty much ever since, Thanksgiving traditions permeate every move made between noon on Wednesday, Thanksgiving Eve, when the first “signature” cocktail of Thanksgiving is served while peeling the potatoes, making the stuffed mushrooms and boiling the Brussels sprouts, through brunch on Friday morning when we feast on leftover ham, scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes.
This year, I’m particularly excited that the Hines family will return for a Thanksgiving Eve visit. It’s been many years, but the memories play like it was just yesterday when I tasted my first sip of champagne, gave my first toast, and fantasized about what my life would be like when I was 40 years old. And here’s one more constant I expect to repeat this year: at dawn on Friday morning my dad will likely turn to me and, as he has done every year since 1984, say: “How’d we do, Bugs?” We did great. From my family and me to you and yours, Happy Thanksgiving from the bottom of my heart.