When the Matriarch is Missing from Thanksgiving This Year, Who Will Fill Her Shoes?

For many people, including myself this year, Thanksgiving is happening without the presence of my maternal grandmother, and it has given me an opportunity, in the past few weeks since her passing, to actually reflect on something that I have not thought of in a long time—the passing of the torch to the next generation.

That’s a phrase we use often—“Passing the torch” and we use it to convey a tradition, a ritual, and a ceremony whereby “the old order gives way, giving rise to the new” as it does when every life takes on a new dimension.

Why is it we can be fully adult in the ages on our driver’s licenses, but when the family matriarch passes away, our minds race back to times when we were either in preschool or elementary school, at the “little kids table,” observing the hustle and bustle of the grownups all around us, rushing to bring in things from the oven and gather everyone for a prayer and the chance to enjoy the labors of love that came together for our Thanksgiving meal.

It never once has born any resemblance to the type of Thanksgiving our nation’s earliest settlers once celebrated, but the thought of thanks is the same, throughout the generations. As long as there has been life, there are always levels of ability to do, to be, to help, and to show the way to the ones coming up behind us. For most of our generations, we have tended to rely on the matriarchs of the family as the “glue that holds the family together.” Traditionally, this means that she is the one who is expected to host the family gathering each year and everyone then plans to arrive at her place and either bring their families, and a signature casserole dish or two, or all of the above.

The meaning of family also extends to signature dishes from our specific family members. Over the years, the family gatherings count on various relatives preparing a dish or two where they really shine and stand out. Meals are Southern ways of sharing and showing love to your family and you plan these events weeks if not months in advance. Shopping is rarely last minute as you know there are many folks counting on having at least one or two bites of their favorite dish from you.

The matriarch is the chief coordinator for all this, however, and when she is no longer among us, there is a vast chasm, not a hole, in our hearts because she was the one person whose responsibility it was to bring everyone together. Without her presence, each one of us can come up with one good reason or another why we can be somewhere else this year, not together with our entire family.

That’s what it seems like, I think. When the matriarch is gone, there’s no heir apparent to step into her shoes. If she has one or more daughters, there’s no reason to assume that they can fill that role automatically because the matriarch has held that spot for decades, most likely. It’s like the span of time and process that King Charles took in ascending the throne after his mother’s passing. You just don’t step up to preside. Too many feelings at stake.

The family staying together, though, is a critical formula for preserving generational traditions and history of the family as stories are shared, and retold year after year until the younger generations start paying close attention and retaining the stories that they will ultimately grow to tell their children and grandchildren.

Rarely does a family homestead property, most frequently the gathering site for holidays, remain available and vacant for future generations. If the house is too big to be the home of a surviving spouse with no one else, it is typically sold and the remaining senior moves to a more realistic size property where they don’t have to apply such intense care and maintenance. Understandable.

But what happens to the traditions? You do have options to preserve them. If you still have your matriarchs among you, grab your phone or your video camera and commit those reflections and important stories to video. Generations to come will be forever grateful to you for doing that. Write down what your loved ones tell you. If history is recorded in a family Bible, make sure you have photocopies made and preserved in a safe location so that you always have backup in case of fire or accident.

Next, there is rarely one person anymore who can step in or step up when the generational family matriarch is gone. There does exist an opportunity, though, for people to help tell her story. Sitting around the dining table before dinner, or in the living room and den relaxing is a good time to tell stories about her. Mostly they are stories of patience, as it takes a while for new members of the family, especially those among us from Southern families, to understand the composition of families.

The matriarch is the lynchpin that connects everyone together. She may be the only member of the family to have everyone’s phone numbers. Likely she has memorized them, or they are in her telephone record book. (Quick: do you know where she keeps hers?) Next, she has likely not written down who in the family brings what each year to a family gathering. She knows it in her head and does not need o have it committed to paper. That’s a factor that has to change when she passes away.

You can think back to last year’s gathering. Who brought what? Who bought what? Who made what and contributed it? For the youngsters, it’s always a great chance for them to hang out in the family kitchen as a typical matriarch will have the patience to encourage them to start their baking careers on something easy at first. As time passes, and with extensive practice, good cooks become great cooks. However, one secret is the ingredient of togetherness. When family and extended family come together, THAT is the magic ingredient that no one expects will make the difference between a good meal and a grand meal and celebration time.

Yes, this time, the shoes are empty, but the memories are plentiful. One person does not have to step up immediately and even try to pretend that they can take the place of, fill the shoes of, or even want to try to accept the responsibility of the person who coordinates bringing everyone together.

The passing years always present opportunities for families to “scatter to the four winds” once the matriarch has concluded her time on earth. It can be a solid thing for new generations to build new family traditions of their own. Other situations in other families may well have some toxic guests and family members who can singlehandedly ruin any and all family gatherings.

Those situations unfortunately are just as real as the Hallmark kind of holiday we love to watch on television. Be aware, too, that these exist. When you have friends who are widowed or unmarried, through death or divorce, there are many people considered “stragglers” who love being invited to your family’s gathering because they can experience the intergenerational fun and hear the laughter of people enjoying low-key fun and good times together.

It is never money, the size of the house, the array of foods on a table, or anything else that can be measured in volume that defines the love that the matriarch brings to her family. It’s the time in caring and sharing herself with each one in the family that lets them know they are loved, values, necessary, and instrumental to the family. We all have the power and ability to do that for our family members.

However many are gathered together this Thanksgiving, even if you are separated from many of those you miss with all your hearts, even the family matriarch, please remember the very best times of days gone by and do whatever you can to recreate that joy for those around you in the “here and now.” We only have today, this day, to celebrate. We are not guaranteed tomorrow. So, in the name of all that is holy, may God bless each of you this Thanksgiving season and may your hearts be healed when your matriarch is missing from around the family table this year.

Cody D. Jones ‘02

Owner & Community Member



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