The painting is called “Freedom from Want” by Norman Rockwell, circa 1943. It shows an impossibly happy family preening around the Thanksgiving dinner table as the mother in her frilly white apron delivers a huge turkey on a large platter while the father looks over her shoulder protectively. While the painting was inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address titled “Four Freedoms,” I am taking it at face value for the purpose of this article. Does anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner table really look like this anymore?
Where’s the drunk uncle, the depressed cousin, the fighting siblings, the side dishes that someone “forgot” to bring (that we all experience!)? Real holidays in America are tinged with the stress of bringing family members together at a table where all are not always welcome and love does not always abound.
What do we really look like around the dinner table? Do we mimic the Norman Rockwellian ideal, or are we busting the myths to which we used to subscribe?
Bruce Ham has his hands full. By day he is the chief development director at the YMCA of the Triangle. He’s also an author and writes a blog called The Real Full House. Every other waking minute he is the single father of three blossoming young ladies—Bailey, 18; Lucy, 15; and Annie T, 12. They are the subjects of his memoir, “Laughter, Braids and Tears.” It’s about raising his family in the wake of his wife Lisa’s death at age 39 in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.
“I almost went crazy that year trying to ensure my wife’s care and ensure my kids’ well-being as a parent,” Ham says.
In the midst of unimaginable grief, Ham picked himself up off the floor and took on all of the practical and emotional responsibilities of single-parenting. He focused on finding new traditions to honor the holidays that wouldn’t be overwhelmingly sad for everyone.
When he walked into his parents’ house that first Thanksgiving after his wife’s death, he saw the dining room table set for the family meal as usual.
“I just lost it. I just couldn’t imagine sitting around the dining room table and her not being there,” Ham said with a disarming candor that made my eyes well up.
In response to his reaction, Ham’s parents quickly cleared the table, and the family adjourned to the cozy kitchen to break bread instead.
Ham says it was a “turning point” for him in figuring out how to celebrate holidays with his girls in a new way, while still embracing traditions his wife held dear.
“I began to make some changes, changes I needed to make to move on, to begin to put the pieces of our family back together.”
For example, they still head to the mountains with Lisa’s family to cut down a Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving, but now Ham decorates at least one of his trees with big colored lights, his preference, while Lisa always insisted on plain white lights.
The biggest change—Ham says the tables have turned in his house. As his daughters become young women, they are now returning his love by making sure he is cared for on holidays.
“They are independent, thoughtful, supportive and care for me,” Ham says.
John and Jerry
In many ways, John and Jerry Holla’s life is just as mundane as any other married couple. They get up early and get their 2-year-old son, Grayson, fed, dressed and ready for preschool. Jerry, a network engineer, works from home, while John heads out to his job as a home health physical therapist. At the end of the day, the family reunites at their home in Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood for dinner and their evening routine with their son—bath-time, story-time and bedtime.
They adopted Grayson shortly after his birth in Phoenix, Arizona. They were awoken in the middle of the night by a call from the adoption agency and immediately hopped on a plane and headed southwest to meet their new son.
“It was surreal, exciting and overwhelming at the same time. Part of you is like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a human life, this is it.’ His foot wasn’t bigger than a thumb,” Jerry recalls with wonder in his voice.
Even before the adoption, the couple started talking about the holiday traditions they wanted to create as a family. And while there are no gay couples with adopted children in the Norman Rockwell version of Thanksgiving, John says he, Jerry and Grayson fit seamlessly into their extended family’s holiday celebrations.
“Family is pretty big with us,” John says.
John is the youngest of nine children from what he calls a “typical big Italian family.” Like many families, he and Jerry pack up the car and their toddler and head to his parents’ house in Florida for Thanksgiving where they are treated to undercooked turkey and an abundance of love.
“I had a great childhood, and I want him to have the same memories,” John says.
At Christmas, the family celebrates with Jerry’s relatives in eastern North Carolina where “The women are in the kitchen cooking up a storm. It’s about as traditional as it gets,” Jerry says.
So far, only one relative, an uncle of John’s, took umbrage with John and Jerry’s version of “family.” But his reservations were short-lived.
“But then he apologized. He became very positive about our family, welcoming. Once he processed it and spent some time with us he changed his mind,” John says.
Dawn and Clint
Dawn Bates is the divorced mother of 11-year-old Meaghan. She is also the assistant head of a local private middle school in Cary. Bates started dating Clint Smith two years ago. Smith, who is in marketing and sales for a food products company, is the father of 11-year-old Sydney and 15-year-old Cooper. In December, they will walk down the aisle and become a smaller version of the Brady Bunch.
While Bates doesn’t have a wedding ring on her finger yet, the couple has already successfully blended their families. Both share amiable custody arrangements with their ex-spouses and their kids get along remarkably well.
“My daughter has been completely welcomed into his family, same for his two children with ours,” Bates says proudly, her long brown hair framing her youthful face. In her fitted t-shirt and stylish scarf, she looks more like a college coed than a divorced mother of a middle-schooler.
Bates says the hardest thing about blending families at their ages (mid-40s), is blending the traditions of the in-laws and extended families. Smith has a large, gregarious family in Fayetteville where it’s assumed everyone will show for Thanksgiving dinner. Bates has a small, loving family in Garner who would also like to see her on the holiday. The likely solution this year will be two meals.
“We’ll split our time between our parents and his parents. We’re still trying to please everybody,” Bates says with a resolved smile, palms to the air. “We’re very fortunate that we both have our parents. We know that.”
But Bates, who just moved into a new home in Garner with her soon-to-be-husband, has a vision of someday hosting her own Thanksgiving meal, of creating their own tradition as a blended family.
“When you walk into wherever we are at Thanksgiving, does it look like that picture? No,” says Wendy Gatlin, with a mischievous grin and a twinkle in her eye like a child with a secret. “I think Norman Rockwell’s head would spin around and say, ‘What in the world?’”
Gatlin, a social media manager for a Raleigh television station, gave birth to her daughter, Jayden, eight years ago with the help of a sperm donor. She is co-parenting Jayden, sharing custody with her former partner, Anne Croney.
“Our main thing with Jayden has always been about love. If you’re loved, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” Gatlin says. “What we tell her is that somebody who had the ability was kind enough to help us through our process.”
Gatlin’s holiday tradition always involves volunteering. She is raising her daughter on the principle that giving back to your community is one of the most important things you can do.
“We go and volunteer at the shelter. We deliver meals to people who would otherwise not be able to eat.”
After volunteering, Gatlin’s family joins friends for a potluck Thanksgiving meal. And yes, there is turkey and cranberry sauce. The non-traditional part—the people around the table are not related.
“Friends are family to us.”
Gatlin believes her family is helping to define a very different American picture.
“Not just holidays. We’ve created life traditions all throughout the year.”
Mark and Tresa
“We throw down at Thanksgiving,” television car pitchman, Mark Roberts says with his trademark chuckle that punctuates almost every sentence. Roberts is always ready with a one-liner to hurl at you until you can’t help but smile. “We are the Thanksgiving place!”
Roberts, and his wife, Tresa Jalot, own a company based in Wake Forest that produces a quiz show for students on local television. He is also an auctioneer and emcee. The couple have been married for 17 years and decided after much consideration not to have children.
“It just worked better for our lifestyle. Two busy people with busy careers,” Roberts says. “We liked kids; we just didn’t want to be parents.”
While nieces and nephews have graced their holiday celebrations over the years, it’s Robert’s mother, 80-year-old Marylyn Roberts, a self-described chatty Kathy, that gets the highest marks for entertaining guests with her witty anecdotes.
“We make our own traditions. We do our own thing.”
Jalot cooks for days leading up to the big event.
“Tresa makes a really good bird,” Roberts says, pausing for the laugh track.
The guests are a unique assortment of family and friends that can’t possibly all fit at one table. So, Roberts and Jalot assign their guests to different tables by having them draw an “A” or “B” out of a hat when they fill their plates. Roberts says this not only forces people to make new friends, but it also makes for great stories after dinner, especially for guests who are lucky enough to sit near Marylyn.
Their festivities have become so popular their guests are already calling dibs on next year’s invitation when they bid adieu.
“They get their reservations in early,” Roberts says.
Not a single picture, a collage
So, maybe, it’s not about re-creating Norman Rockwell’s ideal; it’s more about merging his vision of the traditional American family with today’s changing version of the American family.
“I don’t think there is one picture to fit everyone anymore,” Bates says. “It almost can’t be defined. Everybody’s ‘normal’ is different. There is not just one picture that represents the American family.”
Maybe, just maybe, it’s about coming to the table together and engaging with one another in a real and meaningful way. It’s about sharing a meal, but more importantly, it’s about sharing our love for one another and about being thankful that we live in a country where re-making and re-imagining traditions is the very fabric of who we are.
Amanda Lamb is a television reporter and author. Visit alambauthor.com; follow her on Twitter (@alamb) and Facebook (WRAL Amanda Lamb).