Home for holidays still has meaning

A perpetual traveler to someone else's hearth ruminates on lasting Thanksgiving traditions that don't involve a baster.

Published November 24, 2006

There's no place like home for the holidays.

Or so goes the nostalgic World War II-era song crooned by generations of singers from Perry Como to the Carpenters to Garth Brooks.

The older I get, the more I think about the meaning of those words, especially as another Thanksgiving Day rolls in and out with winter-storm speed.

Well into my adult life, I have yet to celebrate a Thanksgiving or Christmas in my own place, because of the logistics of a too-large family and too few bedrooms and a too-small kitchen.

Although I love to cook, I have prepared a turkey so few times in my life I can still count the occasions on one hand.

It's something, I think, that is a phenomenon of my generation because by the time my mother was my age, she had served many a roasted turkey - basted in butter and stuffed with celery tops and onion - at her own dining room table.

Ditto for my grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

In one of his narratives on A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor once remarked that a woman can reach her mid 40s without ever having prepared a holiday meal.

I think what he meant was that so many women of my generation have never married or had their own families.

Others are simply too busy too cook.

So I ask myself, what is the meaning of "home for the holidays" anymore, but somewhere we gather with those we cherish or love?

Over the years I've known people who celebrate the holidays in campers, on cruise ships or in restaurants.

Others are more steadfast in their tradition, hosting big meals for a large, extended family, while others cook for stray, single friends or serve turkey dinners to the poor or homeless.

Come Thanksgiving week, I'm usually cruising U.S. 19 or Florida's Turnpike, heading to a family member's home - one with a kitchen big enough to accommodate hanging out and wine drinking and surreptitious sneaking of turkey leftovers from the refrigerator.

For more than a decade, I drove every year from my former home in Springfield, Ill., to share the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend with family in Chicago.

We went to my aunt and uncle's home in Evanston, one of those rambling, airy turn-of-the-century homes with an extra back kitchen staircase and big enough for dogs and lots of kids and grownups.

My aunt and uncle roasted the turkey. Everyone else brought the side dishes potluck.

Sweet potatoes and warm cranberries in brandy from all of us; bland-tasting healthy food from the nutrition-obsessed side of the clan; pecan and pumpkin pies from the baking-minded.

The next day, my sisters, mother, grandmother and I would head for the old Marshall Field's State Street store where we took in the famous holiday windows and ate lunch by the Christmas tree in the famous Walnut Room.

These were our longstanding holiday traditions, things that felt like home to me even though I was never in my own home or even my parent's home for that matter.

Right now, going home for the holidays for me still means traveling to another family member's home where we continue to preserve family tradition.

All the way down here in Florida.

No, I still don't roast my own turkey, though I did make the sweet potato souffle one year from Cross Creek Cookery. (It doesn't rise worth a darn, but tastes like heaven.)

The truth is, I'm usually stuck with the dishwashing, a big load that I share with my sister, while we sing along with the radio.

No matter.

We will eat leftovers for days, go group antiquing and shop for Christmas.

I am home for the holidays, yet another year.

And for that I feel lucky, if not truly blessed.