The noise level is high and the laughter is constant as is the teasing, playful punching, squeezes, and bear hugs while everyone jostles for a spot. The stack of paper plates is at least 100 deep but that is the last part of the table worth noticing. (By “table” I mean multiple folding tables holding an assorted variety of foods.) In place of fancy place settings is a stack of plastic spoons and knives. You might identify some dishes as familiar American Thanksgiving food. The turkey is carved, the cranberry sauce nearby. Clearly one lucky aunt was in charge only of potatoes for the day, judging by the numerous bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Most of the relatives circling up aren’t anticipating the turkey nearly as much as they anticipate the Korean bulgogi, which has been expertly marinated and cooked by my Uncle Dan. Before the afternoon is through a family member will dare a guest to take a heaping scoop of kimchi without mentioning how spicy it may or may not be. A tall blonde teen with wavy hair will bravely heap it high, willing to upset his tummy to impress his shorter Asian cousin. The banter over the food has begun before a spoon has been lifted.
The Korean crabmeat salad is next to the pea salad you can find at every Dutch potluck and I’ll take both, saving room for when the Dutch cheeses and crackers make their appearance later in the evening.
Before anyone gets to pile a plate, my Pake (“Grandfather” in Friesian, a Dutch dialect) gives a whistle to catch the attention of the rowdy group in front of him. The patriarch knows to give a stern look at the group of young and teenage men who are sweaty and loud from the highly competitive annual football game in the yard. Pake loves the laughter and teasing as much as the rest, but he is sober and severe in the matter of prayer and has rightly trained us to slow for moments of reverence.
“Before we fill up on the feast in front of us,” he begins in his familiar Dutch brogue, which I equate with intelligence and authority, “We will each share what we are thankful for this year and then I will give thanks.”
The young ones sigh. Pake should have considered how long this would take when he decided to have eight talkative children who then gave him forty-five talkative grandchildren. The food is destined to be served cold.
The older ones shush the younger. They know that there was a time during World War II when Pake was helping the Dutch underground in the Netherlands and doubted he would ever see a full table again. His experiences have taught him to waste nothing and more importantly, to acknowledge the One from whom all blessings flow. God’s faithfulness has brought him here and Pake’s faith compounded with the deep faith of my Beppe (Grandmother) has brought us all here. God’s faithfulness and our faith and love for Him defines this family and it certainly won’t be overlooked for food, no matter how mouth watering.
So it begins. “I’m thankful for my new job.”
Then to the next person in the circle, “I’m thankful for my cousins.”
“I’m thankful God healed my hand.”
“I’m thankful my son came back to the family and back to the Lord this year.”
The son ducks his head and shrugs, but we see the bashful smile and we all nod and murmur our own thanks at a family member brought back, something we never take lightly and are always praying for. Some mention the names of those who haven’t come back yet. They are never forgotten, always missed and covered in prayer year after year. Beppe’s great faith often pulls the rest of us along, believing that Jesus will grip the heart of each family member and these types of Thanksgivings in heaven won’t miss even one face.
Some “thankfuls” are quick, some require back-story, and some make us cry because we aren’t merely family who only shows up once a year. We’re family that journeys, prays, celebrates and grieves together.
There are nods of understanding, eyes that know each person’s history, tears and smiles. Soon we’re ignoring grumbling bellies and cold food to hear about the year we’ve all endured.
Pake clears his throat, preparing to pray. On cue, we reach out to clasp the hands nearest- little brown toddler hands, strong Dutch hands with long fingers, smooth hands of a Korean aunt who’s spent the morning prepping food. Pake closes our time of thankfulness with a prayer that we’re pretty sure isn’t a sermon but judging by the length… well, we aren’t entirely sure.
We stand up to grab a plate. I tousle one smaller cousin’s white blond hair and the next cousin’s dark curly hair I make my way to the line. It’s loud and the laughter compensates for the quiet sobriety of the moment prior. Someone is telling a story and many are adding details and building on it as others laugh.
One aunt sidles up to a niece and proposes they sneak off for a walk later, the Tadema way to have deep and meaningful catch up time when the chaos in the house is constant. There are plans for basketball in the driveway, and later in the evening some competitive rounds of Catch Phrase and Mad Gab.
The tables are soon full, the barstools hold a few teenagers, and a handful of adults claim couches with teetering plates and plastic cups.
Often our family hosts guests who find their way to our large tables. They typically watch the unconventional scene quietly, taking it all in. It’s frequently at this point in the afternoon that a guest might lean in and bravely ask, “So… who are your real cousins?”
Any one of us would look at the guest and raise our eyebrows. We might know exactly what they mean by the question but the answer you’ll get is, “All of them. They are all my real cousins.” Our guests can easily spot the almond shaped Asian eyes and dark brown skin as not coming from the same Dutch gene pool, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess.
Clearly anyone who inquires about who is really related- a true Tadema- has not heard my Pake speak about grafting. We, the true Tademas, hear about grafting at every reunion and gathering.
“There are two ways a person joins our family," Pake will say with conviction. “A person can be born in or a person can be grafted in. Either way… they are our family and it's permanent. Born or adopted, it doesn’t matter. God works both ways."
He explains to the young ones that grafting is a process used to join two trees together. A branch from one tree is stripped and cut down. A seedling tree is sliced open, stripped, and makes room for the new branch. What originally looks unnatural and damaged ultimately results in a beautiful fusing. The two trees maintain their individual properties but become one new tree, producing two kinds of fruit. Both parts are the same tree. Each branch is every bit as significant and as much part of the tree, regardless of what color fruit (or hair) they bear.
Pake and Beppe know grafting isn’t done painlessly and it’s not done instantly. They absolutely believe that the sovereign God builds families using His own creative personality and the scars, pains, and work involved in grafting and growing trees is worth all He establishes.
They are both quick to explain, “God adopts us into His family. He gives us everything- Himself, His inheritance, His gifts, belonging, and purpose. On a much bigger scale and with His perfection He folds us in and gives us His name." We graft people into our family, however imperfectly, because God first grafted us and we’ll do everything we can to extend His grace to anyone He brings.
When Pake and Beppe began grafting and growing their own family they had no idea four of their eight children would also adopt. They didn’t know their Korean son would legally adopt his stepsons to bless them with the same name he had been blessed with as a toddler. They never dreamed they would be blessed with 23 adopted grandchildren and 22 biological grandchildren or that those grandchildren would begin adopting, giving them adopted great-grandchildren as well (they currently have five adopted great-grandchildren, but that story is just beginning…)
Just throwing myself out there a bit...