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Holiday memories are framed in the mind
By Stephanie Penick | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 11/25/2009 12:29 AM

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My first memory of Thanksgiving occurred when I was a day short of my third birthday. That year my mother was pregnant with my brother, Jim, who celebrates his birthday Nov. 30.

Back then, four of my grandparents' nine children were married. I was the fourth of six grandchildren that day, a number that later grew to 25.

My recollection of that traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings in Grandma Mitchell's farmhouse is still vivid in my mind. I certainly didn't understand the story of the first Thanksgiving at the time, but I knew I was surrounded with love, joy and the delights of Mitchell home cooking.

The grown-ups sat in the dining room around a huge table - Aunt Marjorie held my cousin Phyllis, just a few months old, while the rest of us grandchildren sat in the south room at a kid-sized table.

Though usually left open, the entrance from the dining room to the south room could be closed off by enormous, very heavy pocket doors, popular in homes built in the late 1800s. I can still hear the sound that resulted from flipping the pocket door pulls and latches that closed them. Playing with the doors was taboo.

Yet playing in the south room where I could listen to the radio while sitting under my grandfather's roll top desk was among my favorite things to do.

One wall was graced with 8-by-10 portraits of my mother's family - three brothers, five sisters and her aunts, uncles and grandparents. And the shelves along the wall were filled with framed snapshots. One shelf also held a box of miniature metal toys, including soldiers.

One reason I remember so many details from more than 50 years ago is because my mother has a framed photograph of that Thanksgiving with all of us sitting around our respective tables. I've likely looked at the photo every year since I was 3.

That photograph captured the spirit of our family tradition, keeping memories fresh and alive.

And through the years, as our family grew with grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, all descendants of Gertrude and Paul Mitchell, our Thanksgiving family reunions have moved to accommodate our large family.

From a bountiful dinner at my grandparents' farm, our Thanksgiving turned into an overnight event, complete with a step-by-step turkey- stuffing extravaganza, first performed at the Tippicanoe Battlefield Campground in Battle Ground, Ind.; then at Ross Camp, a Boy Scout camp near Purdue University.

These days, our Thanksgiving dinner can attract anywhere from 70 to 100 relatives.

We have albums of photographs, organized by Uncle Phil, to help us remember.

Two members of our family died this past year and others face challenging health issues. This year just might mark the end of a long-standing family tradition at Ross Camp.

When I talked to my folks on Saturday, my mother urged us to make the trip only if weather permitted.

On the Sunday evening news, the weatherman teased that snow is in the forecast for Thanksgiving.

For Veterans Day, the Naperville Healing Field of Honor Committee of volunteers, supporters and individual flag donors created a once-in-a-lifetime tribute under mostly sunny skies. With 2,009 American flags, the honor field recognized everyone who has ever served in the military to protect our freedoms as defined in the U.S. Constitution.

Considering the thousands of photographers, both amateur and professional, who attended the exhibit, the respect for all veterans will long be remembered.

As I reflect on that recent memory this Thanksgiving Day, I'll be counting my blessings for my dad, brother, husband, uncles and all other veterans who have protected our right to travel, assemble, receive mail and enjoy family traditions for more than 230 years.

Here's to peace, prosperity and printing plenty of photographs to frame.