32 cousins & a Thanksgiving for the Books

By Wendy Sobeck

I come from a very large Polish-American family. My maternal grandparents, Sylvester and Lucille, had 16 children, and my mom, Diane, was the fourth eldest. There are 32 of us cousins to date. 

Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays—and pretty much any given Sunday—were never hum-drum little gatherings. They were usually epic family “dramadies,” special occasions I’m certain not even Hollywood could dream up! But, to us, the madness of our humongous family was just normal. 

Many family holidays throughout my life have been unforgettable, but Thanksgiving 2001 was especially memorable and bittersweet.

Grandma Lucy

We had lost my Grandma Lucy suddenly to liver cancer in June of that year, and our enormous clan was devasted. As our family matriarch, she was the central force that kept the chaos of our beautifully crazy tribe together. 

My Grandpa Sylvester was particularly heartbroken, as you can imagine. Throughout their 54 years of marriage, they shared a lot of good times, but they also endured a lot of hardships that came with raising a very large family. But when it came down to it, Lucy was his sweetheart. He didn’t really know how to function without her.

We were all concerned about Grandpa’s state of mind as the holidays approached that year. starting with deer season (a high holiday in my family), then their wedding anniversary, followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were heading into emotionally turbulent times without my spirited grandma there to pull us all together as only she could do.

Family in flux

For several years prior to grandma’s death, our family had been going through a state of flux with marriages, divorces and births. Everyone had already started “doing their own thing” for many occasions. Our huge quilt of a family was starting to pull apart at the seams. 

The aunts and uncles would sometimes celebrate with their own core families, visiting my grandparents for the holiday when it was convenient. But my mom and aunts decided that year, instead of each of the 16 separate siblings doing individual holiday dinners, our entire family had to be with Grandpa on Thanksgiving. All of us, together under one roof!

Together again

Thanksgiving 2001 arrived and most of the 16 kids, their spouses, and many of the dozens of cousins all crammed into “the old house” at the family compound. There was a hodge-podge of assorted tables and chairs snaking through two rooms so everyone could have a seat. My mom and the aunts did all the cooking. 

We had multiple turkeys, ham and every side dish and dessert you can imagine. And of course, no gathering was complete without our favorite Polish dishes. The Thanksgiving classics were great, but the kielbasa and sauerkraut, kluski, galumpkis and pierogis made it a true family dinner!

By the time my husband, the kids and I arrived, the little clapboard house was already packed.  The wood heat and throngs of people made us quickly shed our coats. We were greeted with hugs and hellos as we weaved our way through the sea of relatives to greet my grandpa who was already seated at the head of one of the tables. 

I remember giving gramps a big hug as he greeted my little guy, Joey, his great-grandson, on my hip. My mom spotted us and rushed over to grab my son for some quick “grandma squeezes” from her Joe-Joe, then returned to the food prep with my aunts. 

Full house

One aunt was hollering about who moved the plates while another cut up the large spiral ham. A third aunt shooed some of the younger cousins away from the pies and desserts, reminding them: “You have to eat your dinner first!” My husband, with several of the guys, wisely found a seat away from the action of the kitchen—out of the way of Lucy’s daughters.

As more and more family arrived, the house grew smaller and the noise level louder. My dad and some of the uncles and cousins were trying to keep tabs on the Detroit Lions game, but the television was no match for the cacophony vibrating throughout the house. Laughter, loud stories, aunts bustling around, setting tables, kids squealing and running amok, and every other minute someone yelling, “Shut the door!” as folks came in and out of the house. 

Supper time

Finally, it was time eat! 

One of my aunts commanded everyone to get to their seats so we could say grace. Once our food was blessed and thanks were given, the march through the food buffet began. With this crowd, you wanted to get your favorites on your first pass or risk missing out. 

As we sat down to eat, I spotted my grandpa a few tables away from me, happily eating his meal and chuckling every so often at something one of his tablemates said. I choked up a little as I took in the scene around me. As I looked at the faces of my loved ones, I felt nostalgic for holidays gone by when my grandma was still alive, mixed with fear for the future and the changing tide of our family dynamic.  

Family first

I know my grandpa still missed my grandma immensely, but he was so happy to be surrounded by his family that Thanksgiving. It was the catharsis we all needed… to be wrapped tightly in the blanket of the familiarity of kin once again. Little did we know that would be my grandpa’s last Thanksgiving. 

Sad and missing his beloved Lucy, my Grandpa Sylvester passed away in October 2002, just 16 months after his Lucy. Holidays in my big extended family have never been the same, but I am so thankful for that last amazingly chaotic Thanksgiving Day we all shared in 2001.

By Wendy Sobeck

By day, Wendy Sobeck has been the Traffic & Billing Manager at Midwestern Broadcasting Company in Traverse City for over 26 years… in her off time she loves to run, crochet and write. Wendy lives in Grand Traverse County with her husband, 17-year-old daughter, 20-year-old son, plus their cat and dog. Connect with Wendy at wendysuesobeck@gmail.com.

To see the full issue go to: https://www.grandtraversewoman.com/nov-dec-2019-issue/