When we moved to Naperville nearly 14 years ago, my husband and I began hosting the family's annual Thanksgiving feast.
We were adults, and should have known better: Once you demonstrate you can properly cook a turkey and wrangle all the sides without complete chaos, you are Thanksgiving hosts for life. But we were newlyweds who had just bought a home in one of the nation's most family-friendly communities, so we wanted to share our bounty.
All these years later, we still do.
Every marriage creates a blended family of one sort, and ours had its own quirks. While Lance had lived his entire life in the Chicago area, I was a southerner by birth. He had two elementary-age children from his first marriage and I was a formerly childless person trying to navigate the treacherous and sometimes intimidating path to successful stepparenting.
So why not throw another dozen or so folks into the mix — and have a handful of them actually stay the weekend at your house?
I decided early on that if we were going to clean the house, roast a turkey and buy enough sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie to feed an army, it didn't make much difference whether that was an army of four or an army of 22.
It turns out it really didn't. In fact, the whole thing has been a lot of fun, even the year the refrigerator broke down and Lance spent untold hours on the kitchen floor trying to get it working as the cat attacked his long-handled brush, and my parents, sister and I had another drink and looked over the Black Friday large appliance ads.
This tradition actually took root the year before we married, when I first invited my parents for a visit over the Thanksgiving holiday. The next year, they came again and brought my sister and her son, who is close in age to my stepchildren.
So when we moved into our first home together, we made it a standing invitation for them to come spend Thanksgiving with us, and we invited Lance's family to join us for the meal. I make the turkey and family members bring sides. Mom makes the traditional southern cornbread dressing, and I put a jar of peanut butter on the table so my brother-in-law can have it on his dinner rolls.
Through the years our guests have ranged in age from 6 months to 95 years. We have watched old family movies, played board games, exchanged white elephant gifts, laughed together and made many wonderful memories.
Our crowd has swelled or declined through the years as some of us married or divorced, gave birth or passed away. The kids have grown up but still come back, sometimes bringing someone new.
Lance and I missed hosting here just twice, once because we were days away from heading to China to adopt our daughter and another time because my father was undergoing cancer treatments and couldn't travel.
Dad died less than two months later, and while I remember that last Thanksgiving with him in Tennessee, it's the Thanksgivings in Naperville that carry the best memories. We all got a little teary that first year when Mom needed someone to taste the dressing and he wasn't here to do it.
This year it's my beloved sister-in-law Gloria who will be missing. She died of lung cancer in March, just a few months after she brought over a green bean casserole and, as usual, her own food containers to take home leftovers.
Gloria loved the Tennessee-Illinois Thanksgiving more than anybody. She always gave me feedback on the amounts and types of food served and usually gave me a kick in mid-September to start making plans and inviting everyone.
This year, without her guidance, my informal "invitations" didn't go out until about three weeks ago, but it didn't matter much.
"You all know the drill," I said in my email to the siblings, cousins and friends. And, of course, they did.
So this year when we gather around the table, we'll add Gloria's name to the loved ones we toast and about whom we share a funny story or two. Then we'll give thanks for this wonderful Naperville tradition.
Susan Keaton is a freelance writer and editor who cooks her annual Thanksgiving turkey in Naperville.