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After Thanksgiving

About 80 years ago, a radiologist, William Corcoran, and his wife, Mabel, set up house in a big stone home on a hill in Scranton, Pa. They were a typical Irish-Catholic couple of their time and station, which meant he would blaze a path in the professional world and she would stay at home and raise a big family.

That’s exactly what they did. The babies came quickly and then regularly—Rosemary, then Alice, followed by John, Nancy, Jane and Bill. Six kids in all. And every evening—at least if Nancy, my mother-in-law, is to be believed—the entire crew sat down for dinner at 5:30 p.m. Even William the physician took a break between office hours and hospital rounds to show up for the command performance.

And now, where there was always six, there were only five.

Now, I am not here to make a case for family dinners. Mabel had many wands with which she worked the magic that leaves her quite-grown children still talking about “Mother” in worshipful tones. But it is a fact that Thanksgiving—that grande dame of family dinners—remains the signature Corcoran holiday. This year alone, 51 of Mabel and William’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered in Scranton, as they do every fourth Thursday in November, to break bread and give thanks.

Of course, there’s always a few who, for one reason or another, don’t show. But this year there was one glaring absence—Alice. Of all the six Corcoran kids, only Alice stayed to raise her family in Scranton, and so it was to Alice and her husband Jack’s home that we all returned, year after year. That’s where the cousins played the annual pre-dinner football game on the sloping front lawn every Thanksgiving afternoon. That’s where the dozens of siblings, first and second cousins retired to on Friday, for pizza and chat, in and around shopping and outdoor expeditions. And that’s where the entire crew gathered for dinner each Thanksgiving night until sometime around 2000, when the group grew too large even for Alice and Jack’s spacious colonial and had to cast about for a more appropriate venue (lately, that’s been a nearby hotel where most of us stay, as well).

My husband’s beloved Aunt Alice died last spring, at age 76, after a four-year battle with Alzheimer’s. There are more words than I have space here to describe the wonderful sweetness and loving kindness that was Alice Holmes. She was sorely missed this year, her absence a hole that you found yourself repeatedly either stepping in or around.

And now, where there was always six, there were only five.

Alice’s white colonial, perched above the grassy T-day football field, is up for sale. By next November, if all goes as planned, Jack will have moved into the retirement home his eldest son, John, helps manage, and some other family will preside over a dinner at that house.

And what about the Corcorans? What about—as I like to regard it—“us”? Well, we’ve already got a reservation for dinner next year at the same hotel. But where will the guys play their football game? Where will the women heat up spiced apple cider with a brandy kicker? Where can the kids play hide and seek, or just hole up together in a corner, huddled around a glowing iPod screen?

There are other homes to rent; there are, of course, other places and ways to celebrate. But we’ll just have to see if the power of the past overwhelms the paucity of the present, or if it spurs a vibrant reimagining of an old, beloved tradition.

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