Exactly 50 years ago, a new woman sat down in my spot at the family Thanksgiving table.
The stranger bore a vague resemblance to the chair’s previous occupant. She answered to the same name, took the same heaping helping of the same green bean casserole and knew where to put the roaster when she helped clean up after dinner.
While her appetite was about the same, her attitude was enormous. The achingly shy bookworm whom the family had packed off to Fargo-Moorhead 10 weeks before had seemingly shape-shifted to an altogether different species. Five decades later, she would realize they’d have traded this one to get their old daughter back in a New York minute.
But it certainly wasn’t New York. Home was still the same tiny hamlet in darkest North Dakota where she’d graduated from high school six brief months before. Yet their daughter, v.2, wasn’t the same one they remembered.
Have you, by chance, sent your own fledglings off to college in recent times? Are they coming home from a distant campus for Thanksgiving? Bank the homefires and batten the hatches! That first big family get-together after they’ve unfurled their wings is bound to blow up with a flap or two. You may think you know your kids so well … but guess who’s coming to dinner?
On Thanksgiving 1967, the dutiful 17-year-old who’d sewn her own tidy pastel cotton frock the night before graduation came home in bellbottom denims, fringe and beads, dragging otherworldly LPs to tide her over. Sedate and deferential when her parents sent her out into the world, she returned for the holiday weekend louder, revved up, spoiling for debates and virtually bursting with all the confidence and grass-green wisdom only three scant months on a college campus can impart.
Now that she’d seen the world (Moorhead, at least), her eyes had been opened to all the planet’s miseries and triumphs, contradictions and intellectual shocks. The self-styled scholar headed home eager to share her thoughts on absolutely all of it … a firestorm of newly formed opinions unlike any ever hinted at in that household.
If you’d been at that dinner, along with Grandma, Auntie Irene, Uncle Oscar and her bemused little brother, you, too, could have been battered at length by all she suddenly knew about … well, pretty much everything. The quaint, cozy slipcovers of humdrum home and family had finally been lifted from her eyes. Fresh from one quarter of History 101 and Basic Philosophy, she was personally thrilled with the vast new insights she possessed, and she couldn’t wait to enlighten all the dear simple folk she’d left behind in the hinterland.
The college girl’s parents would have put it rather differently: “Uff da! This kid thinks she knows everything!”
Grandma sadly shook her head but commented only on the hair the fledgling was growing out as fast as she could force it from her scalp. “Your poor hair,” she commiserated vaguely, and added, “You would look so much better with a normal hairdo,” patting her hairnetted steel-blue coif.
The collegiate escaped the fam the next night to meet up with a gaggle of classmates temporarily on leave from the Real World there in the hinterlands. Oddly, they’d changed, too. They all talked more. Boone’s Farm Apple and Strawberry Hill were prominently displayed in a neighbor’s rec room, along with exotic fare like taco chips. For so many who’d been barely hatched into the world, they were eager to reminisce about of the “old days” of their youth, while comparing tales of derring-do in the far-off Big City — Grand Forks, perhaps, or Valley City, Ellendale or Fargo-Moorhead.
Thanksgiving is famous for twanging family tensions, where friction between youthful all-knowing offspring rubs awkwardly against parents’ innocent assumption that they’re still in charge. If you haven’t seen your own little whippersnapper since you dropped him off at freshman orientation, it’s best to practice deep, calming breaths. Those familiar-looking aliens who’ll soon drag duffels of dirty laundry through your front door are going to face a shock or two themselves.
“Our house had gotten so much smaller,” our daughter recalls of her first Thanksgiving at home. “And you and Dad were … not as big as I remembered.”
Fresh from her campus in the Twin Cities, she remembers Fargo-Moorhead looking quaintly droll — pretty much as desolate as my old stomping grounds did back in 1967. “Everything was slower. Drivers had forgotten how to use turn signals, and everybody mostly looked alike.”
She points out, “I remember how pissed you were when I went out with my high school friends the next night and stayed out really late.” Darn right. When preferred to hobnob with her far-flung crew, all fascinated by sizing up how each had changed, than sitting on the couch reminiscing with Mom and Dad. She spent the remainder of her weekend doing what all college students apparently whenever they go home — sleeping soundly in her old bed.
On Thursday, if you secretly fear college has turned your kids into puffed-up know-it-alls, be reassured. Given the next four years of exposure to the universe of knowledge left to absorb, and realizing what a scant fraction they’ve mastered, their heads will eventually deflate. Humility will reclaim the upper hand. Remember, please, that — when you trekked home from school to tackle the ritual roast turkey — your parents thought the same of you. Yet their pride and patience prevailed. They sat back to watch you flap proud wings and crow on the edge of the nest.