by Olivia Cunning
My mom has always cooked Thanksgiving dinner for our family. Well, as far back as I can remember, she has. My dad joined the army when I was three years old and I don't remember the big family gatherings hosted by my grandmother prior to our military family days. My family hails from Northeastern Missouri, but being stationed all over the country and even overseas during my father's 20-year-career, we were always far from home during Thanksgiving. I'm sure it was hard on my mom, being so far from her parents and sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but she never showed it. You know, the older you get, the more you realize how great your mom really is. Some Thanksgivings, while dad was "in the field" (training exercises), Mom was a single parent with two girls, thousands of miles from home. She still made the full, giant, oh-so-delicious meal and saved leftovers in the freezer for dad's return. We got two Thanksgivings those years. One without dad and a second one with him.
On years when dad was home, he always invited between four and six single soldiers over to share our meal. Young men (and the occasional woman) who had no family on base. No wife, no kids, no parents to celebrate with. Most of the soldiers were very young--18 or 19 years old and away from home during the holidays for the first time. Thinking back, I'm sure they appreciated joining us for our Thanksgiving feast. The mess-hall cooks make a wonderful meal for the soldiers, but no matter how good the food us, it's just not the same as sitting down with your family. Even if it's a surrogate family.
My sister and I always loved Thanksgiving with the soldiers. They treated us like princesses. We didn't mind serving as substitutes for little sisters or nieces or cousins. They'd play with us for hours. We ate up every minute of it. When you're six years old and the center of five young men's attention, you are on top of the world. Trust me on that. Ever see a six-foot-four muscle bound hunk perched precariously on a miniature chair drinking imaginary tea from a tiny tea service with a stuffed rabbit? I have. And he liked it. His hostess was adorable. I was the girlie girl of the family and my sister was the tomboy. The GIs used to play who can toss the squealing bundle of energy closest to the ceiling without causing a concussion. My sister loved it. I stuck with hosting tea.
When my dad retired from the military, he and my mom relocated back to Northeastern Missouri. I live in Nebraska and my sister lives in Texas. This year, Mom's making the full, giant, and oh-so-delicious meal and I'm driving 500 miles to consume it. And while there will be no adopted-for-a-day soldiers at the table, my extended family will be there. I have never missed a Thanksgiving with my parents and I'm grateful for that. This Thanksgiving when you're surrounded by all the people you love, take a moment to remember the soldiers far from home who miss their families so much they'll drink imaginary tea with a stuffed rabbit and a star-struck little girl. I know I will.
What's the crowd around your Thanksgiving dinner table like? Do you attend a huge gathering or something more intimate?