By Connor Coyne
Photo by Brittaney Greeson
The decline and fall of the industrial Midwest has been articulated through a number of metrics over the years. Economists have measured the erosion in unemployment and per capita income figures, sociologists have measured it in demographic shifts, and historians have noted the disappearance of millions of manufacturing jobs, victims to streamlining, outsourcing, and, most often, automation. Photojournalists have loved to document the change of a generation through an ubiquitous catalog of visual stereotypes: the shuttered factory, the boarded-up home, the vacant lot choked with chicory and witchgrass. Pompeii. Palmyra. Detroit. Gary.
These metrics and images not only overstate the withdrawal in certain regards — the last occupied house on a block is as full of life as an occupied house anywhere, and one person’s vacant lot is another person’s garden waiting-to-happen — but they also gloss over some of the meaningful experiences of living in a region that is being gradually abandoned. And I cannot think of an experience of life in the industrial Midwest that has been as thoroughly transformed as Thanksgiving.
When I recall childhood memories, few conjure up the sepia sheen and Norman Rockwell overtones of a Coyne family Thanksgiving. In the 1980s, my family lived in Flint, in a well-regarded neighborhood known for its small but tidy story-and-a-half Cape Cods. I shared my block with teachers, police officers, and autoworkers. My dad worked as a job setter and tool maker at Buick. Every Thanksgiving we’d put on our oversized winter coats and cram into a red Chevy Citation to make the pilgrimage out to Flushing, a staid but picturesque suburb. My Grandma Coyne, the family matriarch, lived there in a house that had been built shortly after the end of the Civil War and which was the last on her block to get electricity. It was one of those looming old houses that betrayed just a touch of the Gothic.
Once we got inside the house, I remember a clamor of noise. There was my Grandma Coyne and my Aunt Georgia, usually joined in the kitchen by my mom and my Grandma’s sister-in-law. We saw cousins once and twice removed, as well as aunts and great aunts who, separated from the family on paper by divorce, nevertheless arrived smiling, despite the absence of their wayward brothers-in-law. My great uncle Kenny would sit in a recliner chair and observe the proceedings in benign silence whilst smoking his pipe. Despite the china on the table, the house was a scene of controlled chaos.
The table spread was equally imposing. The senior male present did the honors of carving the turkey — and it would be a pretty big bird — but you would also see, and better yet, smell, the ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, buttermilk rolls, green-bean casserole, pumpkin pie, apple pie, cranberry jelly, red Jello, and a creamy mushroom-and-vegetables dish that my Aunt Georgia brought but that the kids usually tried to avoid at all costs. I’d usually try the beets, expecting such an iridescent purple to taste fruity and sweet. They didn’t.
After eating, my brother and sister and I, maybe joined by a cousin or two, would bundle up again and go running and shrieking through my grandma’s giant backyard, climbing in her apple and cherry trees and crunching black walnuts underfoot. We might pick up some of the walnuts, tarry under their cracked green skin, throw them at each other, and make a mess all over our hands. Sticky walnut stains take more than a bit of soap and water to clean up. Usually it required my grandma’s bathroom bristle brush, with soap worked up into a lather, wielded by her gentle but firm hands, scrubbing scrubbing scrubbing. Meanwhile, the men of the family had laid themselves out on the living room floor, watching football or dozing in a tryptophan-induced coma.
Thirty years later, much has changed.
My Aunt Georgia died in 2012, followed by her mother, my Grandma Coyne, in 2014. When the older generation passes, families depend on their younger members to swell the ranks and keep traditions alive. But Genesee County, Michigan, is not the thriving center of opportunity that it once was. All of my cousins are now spread across Ohio, North Carolina, Alabama. After struggling to find work as a dog groomer near home, my sister decamped from Michigan altogether, moving first to California, and then to Austin, Texas. Her new home not only lacks the cold winters she’s always despised, but offers her a vibrant, Bohemian social scene that makes even Ann Arbor seem quaint by comparison. My brother, on the other hand, went to a music conservatory in Rochester, New York, before moving overseas and becoming a Unitarian minister in Manchester, England. The world beckoned him with its opportunities and he answered. There, he and his wife and son will share in their own Thanksgiving rituals; their own moment of living American culture abroad. We all keep in touch with each other, but it isn’t the same as sitting down at a table together. Our Thanksgivings are very different today.
Each Thanksgiving, my wife, my two daughters, and I bundle up again, leaving our house in Flint for the half-hour trip into Flushing. On the ride, some previously occupied houses are now abandoned, and some previously abandoned houses have been demolished altogether. The air is gray with November and the bite of a light snowfall, but my parents’ house is as bright and warm as ever.
My mom and dad preside over the event as my Grandma Coyne did before, but the gathering itself is much smaller: There are only six of us in attendance. One table is enough for all of the food and all of the guests. Not as much food is necessary, either; a smaller bird suffices, and of course there is stuffing and rolls and mashed potatoes, but one pumpkin pie will satisfy everyone here and we’ve done away with the Jello altogether. My daughters know they have to have some veggies, but they aren’t as gullible about the beets as I was, and so there aren’t any beets, either.
After dinner and dessert, the kids again play together — noisily — and the grown-ups gather around the TV. The division of labor is more egalitarian than it ever was in the past. My mother is the master-of-ceremonies, but the men and the women work together. Then, everyone crashes in the living room for conversation and storytelling and maybe some football, too.
My family is not unique in witnessing the transformation of our Midwestern Thanksgiving. My wife’s large family, from Zanesville, Ohio, has also seen the attrition over the years: her brother and sister have moved their families to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, respectively, and now their dad travels to enjoy the holiday with one of his kids or brothers. My wife’s mom and stepdad moved to Kentucky for many years, and it has also been difficult to meet up with them for the holiday. Friends and neighbors have lost family members to the coasts, to the South, to other countries, and if they’re going to save up for an expensive plane ticket or road trip, it probably won’t be for Thanksgiving. Not for a single Thursday in November, just a month before Christmas and New Years.
As the jobs have vanished, as education and employment have lured our young people out-of-state and overseas, our holidays have been transformed as well. Smaller Thanksgivings are now ubiquitous throughout the industrial Midwest, and most of those Thanksgiving tables feature empty chairs, waiting, as if for Elijah, for this aunt or that brother or this cousin to return and take a seat. The grand, old Thanksgivings are as much a relic of the past as those huge factories coughing out their soot seven days of the week.
But different needn’t always be grim. Our new Thanksgivings are more mellow than the old, but what we have lost in the crowds and the jostling, we have made up for with a new intimacy. I still have friends, usually from out-of-state, who have large family Thanksgivings, and just as often these are a source of stress. My friends might lament awkward arguments with politically retrograde relatives, or worry about how their kids will behave, or just struggle to remember everyone’s names. I can simply enjoy spending this time with people I love.
I’ve adapted to the new Thanksgivings. They aren’t intrinsically any better or worse than they used to be but this is still a holiday about companionship. It is still about food prepared with love. It is still about the idea that we should take time to express gratitude for the many gifts we typically take for granted. If one person’s vacant lot is another person’s garden waiting-to-happen, we can take warmth, comfort, and companionship from the rich, fertile soil that beckons beneath the seeming emptiness.
Connor Coyne has authored two novels, Shattering Glass and Hungry Rats as well as Atlas, a collection of short stories. His website is ConnorCoyne.com, and he can be found on Facebook and Twitter @connorcoyne. He lives in Flint with his wife, two daughters, and an adopted rabbit.