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Empty chairs, empty table, but still Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, I’m setting an extra table.

It’s not for the kids. We have one of those, with little plates of cut-up turkey, and little legs dangling from the chairs, and little heads that fall asleep on little forearms as the night wears on.

It’s not for the desserts. We have a separate space for those as well. Pies of pumpkin, cherry, pecan and banana, ice creams and sorbets and brownies and biscotti and the family favorite of chocolate chip cookies and whipped topping, because every family has an original dish.

It’s not an out-of-towners table. They mix in with the locals, family from Maine, New York, Kentucky, Nevada, Florida, California and, this year, Haiti. We all sit together, in a labyrinth that forms a massive “L”, where chairs get turned to speak with the other side and yelling across the room is expected, and encouraged.

No, the table I’m setting this year is a new one. A different one. It’s a table for all those who are no longer coming, all those who filled the house with laughter and stories and singing and arguments, and who, sadly, will never walk through the door again.

This Thanksgiving will be the first that I host without parents in my life — parents who, for decades, held this holiday in their home, collecting us, once a year, for a weekend that, quite frankly, kept the extended family in touch.

Now, like so many of my older relatives, my parents are gone. But I can still see them. Hear them.

So I’m setting a table.

Empty chairs.

Absentees are growing

Look. There’s my grandmother, Ruth, as warm as a furnace, as squat as a fire hydrant, examining the plates and approving the moistness of the turkey.

There’s my Uncle Eddie, her white-whiskered brother, the tough guy of all tough guys, with a Popeye voice and a jut jaw and narrow eyes that tear up when you tell him you love him.

There’s his wife, Sarah, her hair in a short bouffant, her voice as scratchy as Edith Bunker. She’s arguing with another aunt, Molly, over something that cannot possibly be important: who used to live on what street, what year their parents came to America, what’s a better brand of instant coffee, you name it.

Next to them is my Uncle Bob, Molly’s husband, who supposedly has trouble hearing, although we suspect he just uses that excuse to check out of his wife’s conversations.

Alongside them, holding court, is my Uncle Mike, my mother’s brother, with a thick black mustache and a booming voice, letting everyone know he’s not eating a particular sweet-potato dish because, as he yells out every year, “It’s disgusting!”

And next to him is my mother, laughing as she always laughed at her kid brother, which made him smile, which made her smile, which made them lean in and share a hug.

And looking on, beaming, is my father, who had been with my mother since he was 16, who stepped in and raised Mike when Mike’s father, my grandfather, dropped dead of a sudden heart attack in his 40s, an event my mother witnessed as a teenager.

They are all gone now, from one thing or another. Cancers. Strokes. More heart attacks. One by one they disappeared from the Thanksgiving table, and each year we mourned the latest absentee, until the absentees outnumbered the original attendees.

Which is where we are now.

Empty chairs.

Echoes and memories

I still remember the day my mother turned over the Thanksgiving reins. My wife and I had settled into a good-sized house in Michigan, and upon a visit, Mom gazed around as if measuring the place (she was an interior designer, so this was entirely possible), then she pulled us aside and said, “It’s time.”

I was in my 30s then. Too young, really, to understand the implications of gathering relatives from around the world, too young to comprehend when she said, “It’ll be up to you to hold the family together.”

After all, I thought, it’s just Thanksgiving, an event shouldered by my parents for as long as I could recall, through a modest house in New Jersey, to a narrow townhome in Philadelphia, to a rural farm in Pennsylvania.

But as the years passed, it became apparent that with busy lives and busy careers and new spouses and new children, getting everyone together, even once a year, was a challenge.

With guidance, we undertook it. We learned the preparation, the sleeping arrangements (Thanksgiving for us, begins on Wednesday and ends on Sunday). I still recall the year when, just before eating, everyone quieted, as was tradition, and I turned to my father, the patriarch of the family, and nodded for him to stand up and give the annual greeting and gratitude for our blessings. He shook his head and motioned to my wife and me, saying, “This is your house. You should be doing it now.”

Looking back, that was the beginning of the final handoff. It ended last December, when my Dad died on a Friday afternoon from stroke complications. For the last few years, he’d been reduced to participating through Skype, unable to travel, and some of our family split Thanksgiving in half, eating here, then flying out to be with him for a “Saturday Thanksgiving” just to keep the tradition alive.

You can’t keep things alive. I’m learning that, painfully. No matter how much you love something, or someone, their existence is out of your control. You can weep. You can wail. But you can’t summon them back.

All you can do is carry on and remember. So I pull out the furniture and move it around, if only in my mind, which is where so much of this holiday lives.

Empty chairs. Missing loved ones. Lord, how their voices once filled the room, as their echoes fill it now.

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