The first Thanksgiving I can clearly recall took place in 1965.
My parents, my sister and I had moved into an apartment in a dormitory at what was then Campbellsville College. My mother served as the dorm director. My dad had been hired as the college's dean of men.
As we prepared for Thanksgiving that year, my mom and dad realized there were several young men in our dorm who lived too far from home to celebrate with their families, or had no families to go home to.
They invited those guys to share dinner with us. There were a couple of foreign students from Kenya, a lonely looking fellow from California, a smattering of others.
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My mother laid out a feast: turkey, homemade dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, corn pudding, spoon bread, pies.
The students talked, joked and traded stories about Africa or the West Coast. They offered each other tips about professors they considered particularly hard or easy.
Watching them eat, listening to them chatter, my parents, who I realize today were themselves oh so young, appeared pleased. They smiled at each other.
Even though I was just 9, it seems to me — maybe I only imagine it so now — the whole affair warmed me, filled me with a contented sense that, if only for an afternoon, we'd all joined into a larger family.
Then and now, Thanksgiving has remained my favorite holiday.
For one thing, I love turkey.
But more than that, Thanksgiving often has provided me that same sensation of comfort, even as we Prathers have changed houses, changed cities, changed lives.
When I grew up, married and had a son of my own, I loved to take my wife and child to my parents' house for the holiday. My sister would come with her expanding crew. From year to year we'd have various in-laws or church members or cousins, too.
My mother baked and cooked and filled the house with sweet aromas I can yet smell even in mid-summer, if I close my eyes and reminisce.
Gradually, my parents grew older and stooped.
My mom passed away. My first wife passed away.
After that, for a couple of years, my father ordered ready-made Thanksgiving meals for us all from a grocery deli.
My nephew grew up and married and brought his wife to our dinners. Then they brought their babies. My son developed into a tall, muscular man, wed and brought his wife. Then they brought their kids.
My dad passed away.
Somehow, to my astonishment, I'm the patriarch now. We hold our meal at my house.
This year, 20-some of us gathered, toddlers and teens and adults.
We all enjoyed a repast that would have done my mother proud: white meat, dark meat, mashed potatoes dripping with butter, stuffing, spoon bread made from my mom's recipe, broccoli casserole, pumpkin pie and a luscious chocolate éclair dessert from another of Mom's recipes.
My wife, Liz, who wasn't even born when my parents fed stranded college students on that Thanksgiving in 1965, prepared the greater portion of the feast.
After we were all sated and everyone else had left, she and I were cleaning up.
I said, "Thank you for doing all this for my family."
She sealed a Tupperware container filled with leftover stuffing.
"Well," she said, smiling, "they're my family, too."
That's the wonder of it. Every year our guest list changes. Once, long ago, it included college students we'd barely met from places we'd barely heard of. This year it included children we never imagined would exist. The list increases. It shrinks. It increases again. People pass. Others happen along.
They're all family.
Standing in the kitchen with Liz that night, I felt a familiar stab of loss.
And I felt an old, comforting warmth, a familiar contentment.