Last year we spent Thanksgiving at the home of complete strangers. We had so much fun we went back this year.
After coming home his first Thanksgiving while away at college, our son decided last year he didn’t want to make the long journey homeward. My older brother invited us to his home in Pennsylvania, and to Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’ (names changed to protect the wonderful in this post). My brother and Mike Melnick have been friends for over 30 years – they were co-workers and poker buddies for ages. My brother and his family have been celebrating Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’ for over 20 years. I, however, had never met them.
A big draw for our son was that one Melnick nephew is an Annapolis grad and a Navy helicopter pilot. So, we accepted the offer, flew to the east coast, picked up our son and drove to Pennsylvania.
When we arrived at the Melnicks’ modest 3-story suburban house last Thanksgiving Day, Mike and Madge Melnick greeted each of us by name with bear hugs and a warm welcome. There was an enormous table in the dining room for the food. Tables and chairs were set up throughout every other room on the first floor for over 40 dinner guests. Each of the portable dining tables was beautifully and lovingly decorated with fall color linens, pumpkins, flowers and greens. There were handwritten place cards attached to little straw turkeys at each place setting. I was at first alarmed that my husband, son and I were placed at different tables (as were my brother, sister-in-law and nephew). I was anxious when I was jokingly told I was at the “Smart Table”. I headed for the wine bar (I’m always smarter after a glass of wine.) I was fearful this was going to be one of those social functions where I really had to be on my game.
While driving to the festivities, my sister-in-law gave me the Melnick Who’s-Who briefing. As I began mingling at the house, my head was whirling trying to match and organize names and faces and relationships. Somewhat related to my lifelong People Magazine obsession, when I step into a room of strangers, I find it oddly fascinating to decipher connections and back-stories. (In fact, this year after I left the Melnick gathering I charted all the relationships just for fun to test my knowledge — but more about that later.)
By the time I took my place at the Smart Table for dinner, I was ready for the challenge. I decided to use my PSE training, a sales technique I learned on the job that works brilliantly in most social situations. Basically, you just continue to ask question after question, the goal being to elicit as much information as possible while keeping the other person(s) talking. I have found that the more the other person is engaged in talking, the more I learn and the cleverer he or she thinks I am. Generally, most “smart” people love to talk about themselves.
But a funny thing happened at the Smart Table–on the way to my “sale”. It started with the blessing and toast that Mike Melnick gave before dinner. He wiped away tears as he spoke of friends and family. He specifically welcomed my husband, son, and me, by name, to his home in his toast. My tablemates chuckled as they described how his toasts get longer and more emotional every year. The people at the Smart Table were indeed brainy and accomplished and, also, really, really KIND. There were a married couple of scientists. There was an urban planner and an architect. Somewhere around my twentieth follow-up question, I forgot about composing my next one. I was relaxed and simply enjoying the conversation. We talked about family and farming and books and food and history. I genuinely yearned to know more about them, and they were interested in learning more about me. One of my tablemates was the twin brother of Madge Melnick. He described how they and their 6 siblings grew up on a farm in Minnesota. He explained how their older sister Betty travels every year from Texas to the Melnicks’ house to direct this Thanksgiving extravaganza. The two sisters spend all week cooking, cleaning, decorating and laughing. And they love it. By the end of our 2-½ hour dinner together, I was the best of friends with my Smart Table-mates.
A few times during dinner, I looked around to see how my son and husband were faring. My husband was apparently seated at the “Sports Table”. He sat with a bunch of other guys, an enormous plate of food before him, near a big-screen TV tuned to one of the football games. A look of utter contentment on his face – like the cat that just ate the canary.
The first time I looked for my son, I observed he was seated next to the Navy helicopter pilot and there was a clear case of male bonding happening. He sat in rapt attention as the pilot talked about his experiences at the Academy, post-Academy, at flight training and in his career. Later in the evening, I noticed my son had moved. I looked out the window and saw him run by, followed by a younger cousin, and a line of younger Melnick relatives and friends, like the Pied Piper. It was a massive game of hide and seek. It made me happy that my only child son was able to have some carefree family playtime.
What we experienced at the Melnicks was pure and genuine hospitality. At the core is a large close-knit family who love being together and who delight in sharing that kinship with a growing circle of family and friends. They went to great lengths to make us feel welcome – they even thought in advance what and who each of us would enjoy and tried to surround us with what would make us comfortable.
When Thanksgiving rolled around this year, we were invited and decided to return to the Melnicks. We pulled up to the house and it was like a family reunion. We got our bear hugs from Mike and Madge. Little Ella, who was a newborn last year, just celebrated her first birthday and was almost walking. The Navy pilot excitedly told us about his orders to a new duty station. The tables were all decorated again, this time with little straw pumpkins for place cards. I was delighted to return to the Smart Table. My husband was at the Sports Table with his old friends near the big-screen. Mike gave his toast and choked up. It took me a little while to get all the names and relationships refreshed in my brain (revising my mental data banks for any updates) and I expanded my inquiries to unearth new levels of detail about the attendees.
That night, after we returned from Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’, and while it was still fresh in my head, I decided to jot a chart with the names and relationships of the people who were at the gathering. Partly to save me some time next year, partly just for fun, partly to impress my husband and brother with my savant talent. But in looking at it, I was struck that this was a family tree with a strong trunk of family relationships, but with significant and sturdy branches of non-blood, long-standing relationships (like my brother) that have become permanent parts of the tree.
I am forever thankful for the Melnicks. During our son’s time at the Academy, it has been difficult for us to be together at home for Thanksgiving. We considered either being separated for the holiday or eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant near Annapolis. Instead, we were deeply blessed by the Melnicks with two warm and cozy family Thanksgivings that we will always treasure. And to me, Thanksgiving at the Melnicks was a lesson in the true meaning and expression of hospitality, family and compassion that I will never forget.