Like many of the holidays I treasured as a kid, Thanksgiving has evolved significantly in the last 30 years. As a young child, I have no memories of Thursday night sales, Black Friday mobs, or the incessant barrage of consumer advertising dedicated to all of the "great deals". And while I'm sure that these things occurred to some degree, I am skeptical they reached levels anywhere near that of today's spending mania. For our family, Thanksgiving served as the single time each year where the entire family gathered from various parts of the state. Aunts and uncles and cousins who we had not seen since the previous Thanksgiving would arrive at my grandmother's house for two days of talking and eating and playing games. The talking we boys mostly avoided, instead being exiled out-of-doors. This was our preference because the woods around my grandmother's place were filled with beaver ponds and caves and plenty of other things that could be explored. The eating began at lunch and never really ended until we all left. There would be turkey and ham and sometimes deer, deviled eggs and corn, green beans and rolls and any number of homemade pies. And then the boys would be sent back outside, rain or shine or sleet, while the men went next door to my uncle's garage to smoke or drink, and the women washed dishes and caught up about births and deaths and family news.
But the games, or more accurately The Game, became the centerpiece of Thanksgiving. The game was Risk, the game of family domination. After we came back together in the early afternoon for dinner, at least one of the boys soaking wet from falling in the creek, a sort of ritual selection would begin. Someone would introduce the idea of getting out the Risk board, then the men would go back and forth over how interested they would be, and then the selection of who could fill the remaining spots at the table. We did not play with less than six, and we did not play with more. With my father and uncles always playing, only two or three seats would be open each year for the rest of us. It became almost a coming-of-age ritual. We played for keeps, and this was the one night of the year the kids could truly antagonize the older men without repercussion. If my brother or I pushed a swollen pile of plastic Roman numerals from North Africa to Brazil (my Korean War veteran uncle's standard redoubt), the generation between us that our father and uncles grew up in would cheer and taunt.
These games lasted for hours. One memorable Thanksgiving we began around 5 PM and the final roll of the dice hit the board at 2 AM. Remembering them now is bittersweet. I think about how important these were in developing my sense of identity within the family, but I also think about all of the faces in my memories that are no longer here. It makes me thankful to be here myself, and for so much else. So tomorrow, while people start shopping all around us after their Thanksgiving dinner, I will sit at home with my wife and daughter and think about getting my copy of Risk out of the closet. It is the same version we played with decades ago, I found it for one dollar at a thrift store. But not being able to fill six seats, I'll leave it in the closet. My wife may go shopping in the evening. In my head, I will be elsewhere, far away from the city. I will be 10 years old again and standing in a stream or goading my cousin into invading Siam.
I wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving.