I have always loved Thanksgiving. I have fond memories of cozy days at home with family and friends and helping my mom cook the traditional meal. When my mom passed away in August 2002, our family’s Thanksgiving tradition was suddenly thrown out of balance. Our first Thanksgiving without her, my dad made the turkey and sweet potatoes and I made all of the other sides. It was bittersweet–it is always wonderful to have the family together, but her absence created a painful void in the holiday.
That following March I threw a St. Patrick’s Day party. This was another holiday that was especially difficult without my mom. She was 100% Irish and celebrated the holiday throughout the entire month of March. I would come home from school to Irish music blaring on the stereo. She had shirts and sweaters with shamrocks embroidered on them, Celtic scarfs and Irish jewelry that she would wear throughout the entire month. On St. Patrick’s Day, she would pack us a green lunch–sandwich, green apple and some sort of green dessert. When we got older, my parents started throwing St. Patrick’s Day parties. Corned beef and cabbage, Irish stew, soda bread and whiskey cake would be among the offerings, and the alcohol flowed freely. One year my Dad “shook his shamrocks” for their guests–my mom had bought him a pair of shamrock boxers that year and he apparently felt the need to show them off.
My St. Patrick’s Day party was a bit simpler. I stuck to appetizers and alcohol and it was a great time. My sister, niece, brother, and Dad all came into town for it. After too many glasses of wine, and surrounded by family and friends, my Dad was inspired to invite everyone at the party (including my friends) to our house in Marquette, MI for Thanksgiving. The idea was met with a great deal of enthusiasm. Once he sobered up, my Dad had to grapple with the reality of trying to fit our entire extended family (plus others) into our Marquette house for Thanksgiving.
His intentions were good. Losing his wife inspired him to bring his family together for a holiday dedicated to thankfulness for what you do have. With his parents and his older brother all gone, my Dad was the patriarch of the family, and he felt a need to unify all of us in a special celebration. He just needed to figure out a way to make it work.
The solution was to have the celebration in DePere, WI instead. The Kress Inn, a hotel owned by St. Norbert College where my dad works, could set up a room block with super reasonable rates. The bar/restaurant next door, The Abbey, was closed for business during the day on Thanksgiving and the owners were willing to let my Dad rent it out for the day. They would let us bring in our own food and cook it ourselves as long as we cleaned up and left everything as we found it. One of their bartenders was willing to work for us. Everything was coming together.
Thanksgiving 2003 marked the first celebration that became known as Gobblefest. It has grown every year, peaking in 2007 with over 90 attendees. If I could describe Gobblefest in one word, it would be welcoming. It is not unusual for me to not know 30% of the people at my own Thanksgiving. This is because Gobblefest is open anyone who would like to attend. My cousin Jenna invited her in-laws one year. Now her husband’s entire family comes. Anyone who does not have a place to go on Thanksgiving is welcome at Gobblefest. This is what makes it wonderful.
The celebration begins with a reception in the President’s Suite of the Kress Inn on Wednesday Night. My Dad supplies the alcohol and people bring various snacks and appetizers to share. This is our time to greet each other as we arrive in town and catch up. On Thursday, my cousin Malissa and her husband Brad manage the kitchen. They get up early to start the turkeys. The turkey and sweet potatoes are always my dad’s contributions to the meal. This year we had 70 pounds of turkey to feed our 90+ guests.
For most of us, Thursday starts with a 10:00 mass at the campus church. Most of us are hung over from the night before, but we hardly mind. The mass’ intentions are for the members of our family who have passed away, a special way for me to remember my mom on a holiday that is filled with memories of her. The family is involved in the mass in various ways. This year my dad did a reading, his wife Mary, my Aunt Joan and Mary’s sister Cathleen presented the gifts.
Immediately following mass, we head to the Abbey for appetizers and drinks. Draft beer and wine is on my Dad–another one of his contributions as host of the event. Kyle, our loyal bartender each year, is ready for us when we arrive. Kyle makes a mean Bloody Mary–perfect for a Thanksgiving Day hangover. The great thing about having Thanksgiving in a bar/restaurant is the range of entertainment available. There’s a pool table, shuffleboard, video games, and of course plenty of TVs for watching the Packer game. We bring crafts for the kids and we even set up a Wii this year.
So how do you seat and feed 90+ people? It’s a team effort. Everyone brings a dish to pass. We have traditional dishes like stuffing and mashed potatoes and we always have some non-traditional stuff too. My stepbrother’s wife, who is Chinese, prepares a Chinese dish for us every year. And I always look forward to my cousin’s homemade macaroni and cheese.
We set up several tables in a banquet room so everyone can eat together, and a bar in an adjoining room serves as a buffet. Dinner begins with a welcome from my Dad, then we go around the room and introduce ourselves. My Aunt Joan, my Dad’s older sister lead us in prayer this year, then table by table we helped ourselves to the delicious buffet. The room was filled with excited chatter and laughter while we ate.
Then there’s clean-up. Somehow my cousins get their kids to head up this effort. A group of us adults help to clear the tables, scraping dishes and piling them up for the kiddies to take them down to the kitchen to be washed. They do a great job. There must be some sort of bribe involved–I have never asked.
Then we go back to drinking until we decide we need a nap. Oh, sweet glorious Thanksgiving! Since our hotel is just steps away from The Abbey, there are no worries about drinking and driving. After our nap we can head back to the The Abbey for more drinking and camraderie, or we can hang out at the hotel with family. And I have to rave about The Kress Inn. It’s a dog friendly hotel, so Steve was able to join us for the festivities. Not having to stress about what to do with him during that time was a huge load off of our shoulders.
I am thankful for many things in my life. This year I am giving thanks for my warm, welcoming family.
I leave you with some excerpts from the homily from Thanksgiving mass. It has a great message about living with a sense of gratitude which I found inspiring.
“Someone has said that there are basically two kinds of people: those who have a sense of gratitude and those who have a sense of entitlement.
For those who live out of a sense of gratitude, nothing is taken for granted. Everything is a gift.
For those who live out of a sense of entitlement, everything is taken for granted. Nothing is truly appreciated since they feel they are entitled to everything they have and more.
The person with a sense of gratitude understands that they are not the center of the universe. When something good happens to them, it is a gift to be treasured and for which they are deeply grateful. The person with this understanding of life is grateful for their health, for their family, for their faith, for the people they meet each day. Life is a gift and they are thankful.
On the other hand, there are some people who look at life as if everything ought to go their way. They are entitled to be smart, attractive, successful, wealthy. They are entitled for all of the traffic lights to be green. They are entitled to the biggest paycheck because they are so wonderful. They are entitled to get their own way at work, at home, at school, in relationships.
We who were not entitled to anything were given the greatest gift of all–the gift of the Father’s love and grace. When we center our lives on that gift of love, we see life and everything in it as a gift from God. We celebrate this day of Thanksgiving.”