My Earliest Thanksgiving Memories

I’ve written before (see here and here) about how glad I am that my children spent so much time with their cousins growing up, because I didn’t have that experience as a kid. But I do remember one Thanksgiving my family spent with my cousins. It’s the earliest Thanksgiving I remember—1958, when I was two-and-a-half years old.

My paternal grandparents lived in Seattle at the time, and Daddy, Mommy, my year-old brother, and I went to visit them. We stayed at their house for a few days over the Thanksgiving holiday.


My younger brother and me, Christmas 1958, just a few weeks after this Thanksgiving story

My father’s sister and her family lived in the Seattle area also. My aunt had three children at the time—two girls who were four and two, and a baby boy who wasn’t even a year old yet. Although my brother had celebrated his first birthday and was walking, I thought he was almost as much a baby as my boy cousin.

I have two vivid memories of that Thanksgiving holiday. Both took place in the bathroom.


Santa brought me my own ironing board that Christmas

My brother, who had only started walking a couple of months earlier, had burned his hand a week or so before Thanksgiving. While he was toddling around our house, he pulled Mommy’s iron off the ironing board. It hit his palm on the way to the floor. It may have burned him elsewhere, but the hand was his worst injury.

I was with him when it happened. I was petrified when he started screaming. Mommy was not there—she’d gone to answer the telephone, leaving the iron on the board. (Bad Mommy, but these things happen.)

What was I supposed to do? Mommy had told me not to bother her when she was on the phone. But my baby brother was sobbing. I sat there, worrying about whether to go get her. Thankfully, Mommy came running right away, so my dilemma was quickly resolved.

On Thanksgiving, my brother’s hand was still bandaged. He wasn’t supposed to get it wet. He was in the bathtub before the holiday dinner. My two girl cousins and I were all in the bathroom watching. The cousins were asking questions—“Why is his hand all wrapped up?” “Why can’t he get it wet?” “When will it be better?” And on and on.

Mommy patiently answered their questions, and soon his bath was over. We all dressed in our finery for the Thanksgiving dinner. I had a pretty party dress to wear, and everyone said I looked beautiful. They probably told my girl cousins the same thing, but I don’t remember that.

Later in the afternoon, I had to use the potty. I was well along in potty training at two-and-a-half. I knew what to do and when to do it. But I used a potty chair at home. There was a potty chair in the bathroom at my grandparents’ home, but I wanted no part of it that day.

My four-year-old cousin didn’t use a potty chair, and I wasn’t going to either. I wanted to use the real toilet. I wanted to be grown-up like her.

So what if my two-year-old cousin still used the potty chair? She was littler than me. By two whole months. I was certain I could do what the four-year-old did.

So I tried. And promptly fell in. And got my pretty party dress all wet.

All the grown-ups laughed at me. I had to change into another dress, and was humiliated for the rest of the day.

Most of the people present that day have died. The cousins are still around, but I hope they have long forgotten my embarrassment.

Happy Thanksgiving to readers everywhere! Be grateful for family.

No More Libby Jacksons

4 cousins Jul 87

Andy & Libby are the older two cousins. This picture is from the Libby Jackson days

My kids and their cousins often visited their mutual grandparents (my in-laws) when they were children. When it was time to leave, my father-in-law would call them aside and hand them each a $20 bill. I told my children not to expect Grandpa’s generosity and to thank him when it did occur. Nevertheless, Grandpa almost always did pass out the bills, and it became a regular part of their visits.

The oldest of the four cousins was Andrew. On one occasion, when Andrew was about seven or so, Grandpa called him over. “Here’s your Andrew Jackson,” Grandpa told him, as he gave him a $20 bill. (Andrew’s last name is not Jackson, but I won’t tell you what it is.)

Andy’s five-year-old sister Libby wasn’t around when her big brother got his gift. When she heard her big brother had received his Andrew Jackson, Libby went straight to Grandpa. “Where’s my Libby Jackson?” she asked.

Grandpa looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“You gave Andy an Andrew Jackson. I want my Libby Jackson.”

That set Grandpa to roaring with laughter. And, of course, he gave Libby her $20, no matter what she called it.

This story became one of Grandpa’s favorite family anecdotes, told many times over the years. Grandpa continued passing out his Andrew Jacksons until the kids were grown (and even after). In their teenage years, I think they relied on Grandpa to help with gas money. In their adult years, it was a fun (and practical) reminder of their childhood.

Libby is now married and about to have her fourth child. Her oldest two are almost of the age that Andy and Libby were when the Libby Jackson incident occurred.

I thought of our Libby Jackson family story when I learned that the Treasury Department is going to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. As they grow and are told our family’s stories, Libby’s children won’t understand the humor in this tale about their mother—Libby Jackson won’t mean anything to them.

And there’s no one in the family named Harriet to prompt a similar mistake.

As time passes, circumstances change, and history becomes history. What is relevant in one age is irrelevant in the next. That is as true in families as in nations and in the world.

When bad things happen, we frequently thinks “this too shall pass.” But we need to remember that the good things (and people) pass away also. Write down your family’s stories now, lest they be forgotten—but remember to explain their significance to keep your past alive.

Are there stories in your family that have lost their meaning over time?

You Say Grandma, I Say Nanny . . . Doesn’t Have the Same Ring As Potayto, Potahto

I’ve mentioned before that I called my maternal grandmother Nanny Winnie. How I came to call her that started on my father’s side of the family when my older cousin began calling our common grandmother Nanny Kay. I was the second of Nanny Kay’s grandchildren (though a third was born just months after me). By the time I started talking, my cousin who was two years older had imprinted the family—“Nanny” is what we would call grandmothers.

When my later siblings came along, they all called our grandmothers “Nanny” just like I did. I assume our younger cousins followed their older sister’s example also.

But at some point my younger siblings shifted to calling both grandmothers “Grandma.” I think the change occurred about the time they reached their teens—“Nanny” was too childish. By that time, I was out of college and married.

My cousins made the change from “Nanny” to “Grandma” also, but I don’t know when or why their transition occurred.

The result is that I’m the only one who held to the Nanny Winnie and Nanny Kay designations throughout these good women’s lives.

I don’t know why I didn’t make the shift. Maybe I was too old to change by the time my younger siblings were ready. Maybe it is my essentially conservative nature—I don’t like change. Maybe I don’t mind being different—it didn’t matter what my friends called their grandparents; “Nanny” was good enough for me. Maybe I’m just a little kid at heart.

When I had children of my own, they called my mother and my husband’s mother Grandma”. I didn’t feel the need to continue the “Nanny” designation into another generation.

Four generations with Nanny Kay

Four generations with Nanny Kay, my father, me, and my son

In fact, it was easier to have a different appellation for grandmothers and great-grandmothers. My children had both Grandmas and Nannies in their lives. They were fortunate to know both of my grandmothers—their great-grandmothers—for a few years, though they didn’t see them often, because both Nanny Winnie and Nanny Kay lived halfway across the continent.

In fact, one thing that saddens me now is that, should I ever become a grandmother, my grandchildren will not know my parents. No “four generation” pictures with my parents, me, my children, and my grandchildren.

Four generations, with Nanny Winnie

Four generations with Nanny Winnie, my mother, me, and my son

Nanny Kay’s birthday is coming up soon—Friday would have been her 105th birthday. Next month is Nanny Winnie’s birthday—she would have been 108 in mid-March. I think about these women frequently. They were part of my growing up and lived well into my adulthood.

They made me who I am, not only because they formed my parents, not only because they were refuges during my childhood, but also because they passed on certain traits to me. I look in the mirror, and I sometimes see Nanny Kay in the shape of my face. If I have any musical talent at all, it came from her. As I age, I feel myself moving from my typical reserved demeanor toward my Nanny Winnie’s ability to talk to any stranger. Maybe I am assuming her gregariousness as I mature, maybe I am now more relaxed and less stressed, maybe I actually am developing a greater interest in other people.

We all need Nannies to live up to in our lives.

What nicknames has your family bestowed? Which have survived, and which have been lost to time?

The Cousins and Rudolph

4 cousins Nov 1986I wrote on Monday about my children and their cousins. The picture above is my favorite picture of the four of them, primarily because I know the story behind it.

They were singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the adults that were present. The youngest, my daughter, was nineteen months old, and didn’t know much more than “Woo-doff.” The middle two—my son and my niece—knew all the words and most of the tune. Only the oldest (my nephew) could add the “extra” lyrics—you know, the ones that go:

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (REINDEER)
Had a very shiny nose (LIKE A LIGHT BULB)

The other kids thought he was hilarious.

So in this picture, the four kids are singing away, three of them clapping with delight. Son and Niece carried the melody, while Daughter bounced and clapped to her own rhythm. Nephew, a suave eight-year-old, displayed his boredom with the traditional Johnny Mark lyrics and only chimed in with the special harmony at the end of the lines.

Note that my son was so into the song that he stomped his foot in time with the music.

I laugh every time I see the picture. I wish I had a recording to go along with the picture.

(Just in case you wondered, none of them grew up to be singers. But all four of them won Hall Family Foundation college scholarships while I worked at Hallmark Cards, and they are all responsible and independent adults today.)

What memories of children during the holidays make you smile?

On Cousins, Connections, and the “Social” in Social Media

First picture of the four cousins

First picture of the four cousins

I envied my children as they were growing up—they were close with two of their cousins. They were close in age, and for their first few years of life they lived within a reasonable driving distance of their mutual grandparents. The four kids played together regularly, stair steps spanning six and a half years.

My nephew and niece were older than my son and daughter. Nephew (the oldest) was charged with keeping order. As an oldest child myself, I know how unfair that was to the poor kid, but he bore it bravely. I’ve learned in recent years (now that all the culprits are beyond the age of grounding) that Niece and Son ganged up on Daughter, the baby. Daughter still has a soft place in her heart for Nephew who saved her.

A litter of cousins

A litter of cousins

The reason I envied my children is that I only had brothers and a sister. One brother was near me in age, but the others were much younger and not playmates in the way closer siblings are. I always thought it would be fun to be part of a litter.

I had six first cousins (all children of the same aunt), but I rarely saw them growing up.

I had a gob of second cousins, but saw them even less frequently. Some of my second cousins live in the Kansas City area, and I finally met them after I moved here as an adult. Three of them are women about my sister’s age, and I was struck by how much their mannerisms resembled my sister’s. The hand gestures, the speech tones—it was like watching my sister in triplicate.

A few years ago, there was a family reunion in Nebraska where I met other second cousins for the first time. I couldn’t see any family resemblances in that part of the clan. There are still some second cousins on that side of the family whom I’ve never met, and I can only wonder how genetics played out there.

Even though our family is far-flung and not close, through the power of social media I’ve reconnected with a few cousins.

Two first cousins found me on Facebook. It’s been interesting to see the pictures they’ve posted of themselves. One cousin looks like our mutual grandmother, another reminds me of my brother.

A second cousin recently found me through this blog. She was researching our common ancestors in Sacramento (though she knew them better than I did). She found my post on the Strachan-Ryan (our shared great-grandparents) wedding. Since then, we have traded emails about our memories, and I sent her a picture I had of our great-grandmother, Cecelia Ryan.

This second cousin and I met once as children, and we both recalled the meeting, but we knew little about each other’s lives since our grade school days. When we friended each other on Facebook, I saw some pictures this cousin has posted of herself. She looks more like my grandmother (her great-aunt) than I do!

And so families continue, generation after generation. Sometimes close. Sometimes not. But always with connections that transcend time and distance.

Social media now brings us together in ways that were impossible in decades past, forging closer connections, or at least letting us see the connections that exist.

When have you been surprised by a connection with a relative you don’t know well?