Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Far From Home

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?


  1. It was always family and sometimes friends who had bigger families than we did but lived in a trailer and loved having Thanksgiving with us! This year I'm having a writing frenzy Thanksgiving. If my computer was working, I'd probably play a role-playing game my son bought for me for Christmas last year that I haven't been able to play in months because of writing then my computer is still dead in the water. :(

  2. As I was growing up, it was my dad's graduate students who rounded out the table, usually the international ones (Finland, Libya, Japan...) who were not only far from home but also unfamiliar with the holidays. Same with Christmas, which made for terrific after dinner discussions of their holidays back home.
    And as for soldiers... my second book is dedicated to them, and titled, "The Soldier," (Sourcebooks Casesblanca, Spring 2011).

  3. Hmmm... Sounds like your affinity for hunks began at an early age, Olivia!
    We used to have the big Thanksgiving thing at my grandmother's house, but between the time that she got too old to do it and I got married, my mother died, so there were never any Thanksgivings at home to speak of. We went to several dinners with my husband's family, but then that sort of petered out and we moved away, so Thanksgiving became a very small affair with just me and my three guys. I've inherited enough china to feed a football team and I sometimes wish I had a few soldiers to invite over, but I don't have that military connection. I'm glad your family was so willing to share. I'm sure it meant a lot to those guys!

  4. Thanksgiving this year will be especially, well, special.

    My baby sister (a first LT in the Army and in charge of a platoon of about 100 men!) is using her R&R to come home from Afghanistan. She's already making a list and emailing us her requests, lol!

    Thank your dad for his service. It is much appreciated.

  5. What game, Terry? I've been known to play an RPG or two or thirty. Wish you lived closer. I'd kidnap you for Thanksgiving and overfeed you.

    Grace I'm sure the foreign students were very appreciative to be welcomed into your home. I can only imagine how scary it would be to go to school in a foreign country.

    Cheryl- I seem to like hunks in groups of five, too! LOL! Do you get out the good china for your guys at Thanksgiving? That meal and Christmas are the only meals we are allowed to use my great-grandma's good china.

    Marquita- That is totally wonderful! I'm so glad your sister gets to come home for Thanksgiving. Feed her well, shower her with love, and thank her for her service to our country.

  6. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it. It made my day.

    Since my Mother passed away, the family tradition of gathering around the holidays has fallen to the way side. It's sad, I know, but at this time, it is what it is. Now that my son is living with his girlfriend, I've been invited to her place for the holidays. It's nice. Big family. Wow!

    Got your book, looking forward to reading this weekend! Hear nothing but good things about it.

  7. By the time I was able to sort Thanksgiving from any other big family dinner, I had an older brother and sister who were in college. It seemed like they always brought friends who were far away from home with them.

    One I particularly remember was from Saudi Arabia. He kissed my mother's hand in greeting. Mother almost swooned at the Continental gesture.

    I love your story about the soldiers. In a SEAL book that was never finished, I had Jax from my first book invite men who had no family to his and Pickett's Thanksgiving dinner. It was my favorite scene.

  8. Me and my sweet hubby usually do Thanksgiving alone. Just me, him, and the two dogs. My hubby is a good cook, so I just help him out in the kitchen and the dinner usually turns out fantastically. This year, though, we're headed up north to beautiful Sedona, AZ! Can't wait to spend the holiday staring at the stunning red rocks!!!

  9. My Thanksgivings have been varied, there was a time when I was young, we'd go to my Italian grandparents' with the rest of the loud family. Thanksgiving always included Manicotti, mushrooms stuffed with sausage, ground beef, Italian breadcrumbs and tons of Parmesan cheese.

    Later, after my mom married my stepmonster, we had a Polish Thanksgiving. My stepmonster's parents would come (I loved them, how they ended up with a son like him is a mystery. We had Perogies, incredible Kielbassa, borsht, and a sweet bread called Babka. I loved it.

    Now I do Thanksgiving with my family (just the five of us) and friends. I usually cook the Italian Thanksgiving. Last year and this year just the five of us are going to Longwood Gardens. Now that my 14 year-old ballerina has moved out of the house, we see her so infrequently, I don't want to spend the time I have with her and the other kids cooking. I can't wait to spend the day just the five of us.

  10. Your post was absolutely wonderful!
    Thanksgiving at our house is a zoo with kids and grandkids. The house is open for the kids to invite friends and in-laws if they don't have a place to go so there's my strays who are in and out all day. My grandson who is completing Army training in Georgia will be there and we intend to spoil him because the next Thanksgiving there's a 95 percent chance he'll be "over there" next year. Honky Tonk Christmas was dedicated to all the woman who have served or are serving the military ...
    Thanks to your dad for his service, Olivia! Grandson Brenton Brown, is fourth generation military and we are very proud of him! Oh, yes, he's playing that card very well and his list of things he wants for dinner is getting longer and longer!

  11. Hi Jessica! Have a wonderful time this Thanksgiving. Perhaps this will start a new tradition. And thanks for your kind words on my book. I do hope you enjoy it!

    Mary Margret- So cool that there is a Thanksgiving scene in your book. It's in my TBR pile/mountain. Can't wait to read it! The military is a lot like a family. They take care of each other.

    lynnrush- Sounds like a great trip! And what a lucky gal to have a DH who is a great cook.

    Robin- I skipped breakfast this morning and you are making me soooooo hungry. I think I'll go raid the vending machine. Though I don't think there's any manicotti or kielbossa in there. Dang it! Your plans for this year sound perfect.

  12. Olivia,
    Don't know what I did wrong to put Charles Brown's name on that post ... but I promise it's from me! LOL

  13. Hi Carolyn (disguised as Charles!)-
    You snuck in there while I jabbering in my last response. :-) What a wonderful family you have! I do love the chaos of a big family. Makes me enjoy the peace and quiet after they leave all the more (don't tell them I said that...) It's wonderful that you have such a strong military tradition in your family. Spoil the hell out of that grandson this year! And thank him and your other military family members for serving their country.

  14. I can just imagine you entertaining those soldiers.

    We haven't made it home for the holidays in over twenty years. Too many miles with iffy weather.

    We always made sure to invite friends and holiday orphans. Creating an extended family for my children was important.

    My daughter reports memories much like yours.
    Good weather and safe travels Olivia.

  15. Thanksgiving has always been about sharing, so we had an open door policy and everyone would invite strays who had no where else to go for the holidays. Still today, we have good friends who are single with no family, grad students, some AF service members, etc. The foreigners always have a mixed look of wonder and curiosity at Thanksgiving.

    Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

  16. I have a small family that's a bit spread our geographically, so our gatherings are usually intimate. I like it that way.

  17. Olivia, you've got me teary-eyed this morning. Here's to all those far from home on Thanksgiving--may they find a home and family where they are. And may the memories they make be sweet and lasting.

  18. Olivia,
    what an inspiring story! I loved reading about the military men your family have hosted over the years. What a wonderful thing to do.

  19. Thanks, Sherilyn. I'm not sure if I'd make the trip if it was much farther.

    VA- I agree. Thanksgiving is about sharing. A great holiday!

    Shana- Sounds cozy, which is great, too!

    readwriteandedit- I got teary eyed when I wrote it. Which was in a lobby full of students. I think they thought I was nuts. I thought those soldiers were so mature and worldly back then. When I look at them now, they all look like babies to me. Too young for such great responsibility and yet they do such a fantastic job.

    Thanks, Amelia!

  20. I usually have Thanksgiving, but this year we're serving at a local homeless shelter. I really feel the need to give back and teach my kids the lesson.

  21. What a lovely post, Olivia. Thank you for sharing such a personal memory.

    I've become the Thanksgiving hostess for my family. Not sure how that happened. LOL. Think I was framed.

    Word verification: ovensupa. It's a conspiracy!

  22. Judi- That's fabulous!

    Jill- Too funny! You must be a great cook. The best way to get out of cooking duties? Be a bad cook.

  23. Hi Olivia - Very touching blog!! (I'm a military wife. :-)

  24. I love the image of the soldier on the chair with the cup of tea and bunny....

  25. What a wonderful tradition! How great that you have been able to spend Thanksgiving with your family every year!

  26. We used to invite sailors over for the holidays. God knows we had a big enough family to blend into and enough food to feed the 6th Fleet, lol!

    When Dan and I were in the Navy, we tended to invite those who served with him over for meals, not just on the holidays.

    BTW, I really loved your Dad, that twinkle in his eyes is charming. Especially when he was bragging on his girl. :-) In fact, I love meeting your mom, aunt and Grandma--she was really cool and funny.

  27. What a wonderful, generous thing for your family to do, Olivia! And how fun for you!
    My family has grown over the years, and they all get together at Thanksgiving, so our table flows through three rooms. It's wonderful!

  28. That was a great post! We always have a big Thanksgiving celebration. We alterante between my hubby's family and mine. This year we'll be with my in-laws. Good times.