I have a friend who married into a Baltimore family in 1997 and had a vague idea that their traditional Thanksgiving meal included sauerkraut. Eager to embrace all things dear to her dear one, she arranged for her mother to include it at their first Thanksgiving as newlywed guests in faraway northern Virginia.
It turns out that this particular Baltimore family is fond of hot coleslaw, which is definitely not sauerkraut. Three years passed before she understood the difference.
It's a story that will be told at their table this afternoon - and will mean something different to each person at the table - ranging from "Mom is so dumb!" to "I wonder where that recipe for hot slaw came from?" to "Has it really been so many years?"
The stories we'll share today are as essential to our celebrations as anything on the menu. We're hungry for them, these family myths, legends and inside jokes. When we're gathered together this way, we're all insiders - welcome to add to the story and share new ones of our own, all adding up to create moments we'll remember every time we smell roast turkey or see a bowl of cranberry sauce.
"Stories reveal what a family wants to believe about itself. We can make a difference by simply sharing our own stories with real people in real times and places," writes anthropologist Mary Pipher in her landmark book The Shelter of Each Other. "They say something about the family, about its character, history and virtues." I'd add that telling the simplest story invites others to join in, share a perspective. At best, our Thanksgiving stories turn our dining rooms into models for how we hope the whole world could work: listening, remembering what we have in common, sharing gratitude together.
Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, author of Letters to Sam, writes: "The more people we feel connected with, the more secure we feel. Plus, when we listen deeply to another person's experience, something gets very quiet and peaceful inside. That's because we are thinking not about ourselves but about the other person."
The idea that our stories connect us to the larger world means knowing that at every table is someone with something to share. And that hearing the story will influence each listener in a unique way.
"We have a chess tournament after dinner every year," reports one family. "My sister always makes chocolate pie," says another. And over and over again, "We go around the table and share something we're thankful for."
My friend makes the hot slaw herself now - a pungent mix of thinly sliced cabbage, peppers and onions with a hot, sweet oil and vinegar dressing. She can make it without reading the recipe now.
Please pass the sauerkraut.
Susan Magsamen, who lives in Hunt Valley, is founder of FamilyStories, with five new books exploring moments that matter in the lives of families. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.