Words and photos by Ken Billett
Television coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade quietly played in the background. While the morning coffee brewed, I stared outside the kitchen window at our backyard, wondering to myself how our local temperatures went from freezing cold to fall-like weather so quickly. The backyard, brown and barren, looked empty.
Although I was looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with Vicki and Emily, I was also feeling a bit empty.
Watching the Macy’s parade on television has always been a Thanksgiving tradition, as I’m sure it is for other families. While the network commentators blathered on about an upcoming float, I was reminded that certain traditions never seem to change—they’re deeply embedded in our being. Rooted is how I’d describe these traditions. Much like the roots of a mature oak tree, family traditions—particularly holiday rituals and practices—develop from the soil of our souls, spreading across a lifetime of memories to become implanted in our hearts.
Even as we age and our children grow older, these routines and rituals continue, and, many times, move on to the next generation.
This year, Thanksgiving would be the first time in over ten years that the five of us would not be together in Memphis to celebrate. Zach would be in Atlanta with his girlfriend, and Alisa, Vicki’s sister, now lives in Austin, Texas (see Family Ties: The Last Supper).
In fact, this would be the first time our son, Zach, was not here for Thanksgiving since he was born twenty-six years ago.
Thus, the empty feeling.
Deep, Extended Roots
One definition of family roots is family origins, or the particular place you come from and the experiences you had living there.
For Vicki and me, not only do our family roots run deep, they’re extensive. From the hills of North Carolina to the canals and castles of The Netherlands, or from the heat and humidity of Florida to the wet and cold of Hershey, Pennsylvania and the nearby Amish enclaves of Lancaster County, our roots are diverse and, coincidentally, very similar.
As different as Indonesia in Southeast Asia, where Vicki’s mom—a Dutch national—was born and raised and the northern reaches of Ohio, along the banks of Lake Erie, where, almost a century ago, Anna Rosella Wolfe, my paternal grandmother, met and married, my grandfather, Clarence William Billett, a Pennsylvania transplant.
In fact, The Keystone State has played a significant role in our family origins. Grandfather Clarence was born and raised in Lancaster, along the banks of the Conestoga River, while Vicki’s father, Sam Black, was born and raised in Hershey, which is just to the north. Vicki has several cousins and extended family living in and around Hershey, Mount Gretna, and Lebanon.
I used to joke that Vicki and I were somehow related, maybe distant cousins several, several times removed.
Family in the Digital Age
Although the Internet can be a Pandora’s Box of mischief and mayhem, digital connectivity has allowed families to remain in-touch regardless of distance or time zone. For our family, with members strewn across many time zones, the Internet helps maintain and, perhaps, even strengthen our roots.
When my metastatic melanoma was diagnosed in July 2013 (read Happy Birthday, Spider-Man), it was Facebook, email, and Skype that allowed me to communicate with family on both coasts and across the Atlantic. While obviously not as intimate or personal as being in the same room, these digital conversations allowed me to clarify my medical condition and to reassure everyone that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon (read Just Another Day).
To this day, we continue to electronically communicate with various family members to keep them abreast of our latest challenges and, likewise, celebrate milestones that we could never attend in-person.
A Cornucopia of Tastes
The experiences you had living in a particular place was a central part of the family roots definition I used earlier. As I said in the first installment of Family Ties…Don’t get me wrong. Food is important, too. We love our meals, and, in our small unit of five, we have cooks—and bakers—who could give area restaurateurs a run for their money.
In our family, those experiences center around food. And, once again, like our heritage, our meals and recipes are both varied and very much the same. We’ll eat Indonesian sate (or, satay) with peanut sauce at one meal, black-eyed peas and rice for another, and for dessert—Shoofly Pie, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty.
Marriages combine family traditions, experiences, and, of course, food choices into new traditions and practices that carry forward to future generations. When Vicki and I married and, eventually, had our children, we wanted them to experience their combined heritage (read Southern Sinterklaas). We also created our own holiday traditions that I hope Emily and Zach will continue.
Food and family holiday traditions are as intertwined as, well, Thanksgiving and watching the Macy’s parade. Traditions and practices deeply rooted in the past, altered in the present day with a nod to the future.
Needless to say, we had a bittersweet Thanksgiving. Vicki, Emily, and I made the best of the day. We cooked our traditional Thanksgiving meal—turkey, homemade cranberry sauce, Vicki’s delicious sweet potato casserole, my famous homemade mashed potatoes, and Texas Rolls baked in the oven, along with Emily’s fantastic pumpkin cheesecake.
A combination of experiences, of tastes, of family history made up our Thanksgiving meal and our day together—family traditions firmly rooted in the past and in our hearts. We missed Zach and Alisa, which contributed to that empty feeling. But we were thankful for being together, knowing how fortunate we are…knowing that many others spent Thanksgiving alone, or with no family at all.
Our family roots are deep, and, I hope, stronger than ever.
This is Part II of Ken’s ‘Family Ties’ series – Read Part I, “The Last Supper”
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.