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Column: Absences grow, turkey shrinks

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Column: Absences grow, turkey shrinks
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

DETROIT -- The regrets trickle in. Can't make it this year. Too much going on. Airfare too high. Work is crazy.

Once, missing Thanksgiving was unthinkable. But "once" was a long time ago.


Now there are reasons. Good reasons. At least on paper. This one has a high school reunion. This one just changed jobs. This one is moving houses. This one can't find a dog sitter.

They are all being honest. Their lives are busy. Then here comes Thanksgiving and they're asked to screech and halt?

And Thanksgiving in our family is a commitment, I admit. We've been hosting it for years, for upward of 50 relatives and lifelong friends. It goes like this: the arrival meal (Wednesday), the holiday meal (Thursday), the leftover meal (Friday), the restaurant meal (Saturday) and the farewell meal (Sunday morning). In between comes talking, slouching, sleeping, eating, talking, eating, shopping, eating.

At least it used to be that way.

In recent years, the holiday has been shaved, like one of those giant wedding cakes that slowly gets sliced away. "It's cheaper to fly on Thursday," they say, so they come Thanksgiving morning. "It's cheaper to go home Saturday," they say, so they leave a day earlier. Someone needs to work on Friday -- "They're making everyone come in," they say -- and so another chair goes empty.

They are all being honest.

The turkey sighs.

The pain of being polite

Once, Thanksgiving couldn't come fast enough. We all lived close. We couldn't wait for a break from the routine. Businesses shut at noon Wednesday. Nobody worked Friday through Sunday (unless it was in a mall). Missing a few days didn't set anyone back. We were thrilled to see each other, to eat like gluttons, to make the joyous noise of a crowded table and a growing family.

Moving houses? Who moved houses? High school reunions? Who did that on Thanksgiving weekend? Work? What employer would insist you work? On Thanksgiving?

Besides, this was family. And family meant obligation. Obligation to eat, even if you weren't crazy about the stuffed mushrooms or the sweet potato casserole. Obligation to listen, even if you had heard the World War II stories a thousand times. Obligation to do dishes. To carry out trash. To lift your grandparents' ridiculously heavy luggage.

To stay.

Today, we shy away from obligation. No one wants to "pressure" anyone else. Everyone wants to say, "That's OK, you do what you have to do." We act this way to be "understanding." I wonder if it's not so that we can expect it will be done for us. Accept excuses, and we can later make our own. It keeps our options open. It lets us wiggle out.

Everyone is being honest.

But why do we want to wiggle out of each other?

Being part of an online family

Maybe it's part of the New Busy, where we can entertain ourselves fully without leaving the house. In the old days, if you weren't at Thanksgiving, the silence would haunt you. You'd wonder what the family was saying, what they were eating.

Today, you can be online, on Facebook, checking e-mail, downloading movies. Or at work, at the mall, at the bar, at the reunion. Family? Who has time to miss family?

Except you are missing family. You are missing a huge part of life, maybe the best part, when the whole ensemble is together, when one funny story tumbles into another, when your history is being told and made.

Christmas is too much about presents. Fourth of July is vacation. Thanksgiving weekend, with its Thursday start and Sunday finish, is a perfect chunk out of the American schedule. Long enough for siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins to reconnect, to hug extra long, to be reminded why family are not the office gang, not the reading group, not the guys at the gym or the women at the salon -- but family.

And you feed a family with turkey and memories, with laughs, with stories, with being side by side.

The older relatives, who always knew this, have sadly passed away. Each Thanksgiving the table gets smaller, fewer chairs are set, fewer pies are eaten.

The regrets trickle in. So sorry. Got tickets to something. Just gonna relax at home this year.

They are all being honest.

That's what hurts the most.

Mitch Albom is a Detroit Free Press columnist.