Rockwell's Thanksgiving meets the jet age

Fifty-five years ago this week, The Saturday Evening Post ran what has become one of its most beloved Norman Rockwell covers, featuring an extended family gathering for a bountiful Thanksgiving feast. As the family cook, her face solemn with responsibility, brings in a turkey roasted to golden-brown perfection, three generations revel in the joy of being together around Grandpa and Grandma's table.

How simple it must have been then to assemble a family like this. In 1943, Grandma often still lived just over the river and through the woods - an easy drive away. No retirement condos had yet lured an older generation to the Sun Belt. Nor had the siren call of jobs and promotions in distant cities sparked mass mobility among the working set.

Today, if Rockwell were painting magazine covers, he might find his most appropriate Thanksgiving motif not around the table but at an airport the day before the holiday, as millions of homeward-bound travelers board crowded planes and await reunions.

What diner, seated around Rockwell's family circle in the early 1940s, could have imagined an era when a faraway relative would be able to board a red-eye flight on the West Coast at 10 p.m. Wednesday and arrive on the East Coast in time for breakfast Thanksgiving morning with Mom and Dad?

A directory compiled for my husband's high school class reunion in suburban Minneapolis last month serves as one measure of a highly mobile society. Nearly 60 percent of the 210 class members listed live out of state, a few of them out of the country. What a lot of holiday commuting that represents!

Our own small family tells a similar story. We're scattered across seven states, from California to Massachusetts, from North Dakota and Colorado to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. Bring everyone together for Thanksgiving? That's wishful thinking for sure.

Where would phone companies and airlines be without us, the legions of far-flung family members who swell their profits as we strive to keep in touch? Equally important, where would we be without them? Blessed be the 10-cents-a-minute long-distance rates and frequent-flier miles that help keep us connected - and solvent.

Every generation creates its own new pioneers, courageous sons and daughters who, out of necessity or desire, head for distant cities to begin new lives. In the process, they broaden not only their own horizons but, indirectly, those of the relatives they leave behind as well.

Still, there are tradeoffs for everyone that extend beyond the logistics of holiday get-togethers. When faraway offspring come home, we return as visitors and guests. Despite e-mail and faxes and shared family photos during the year, we know we miss out on the pleasure of casual exchanges and impromptu get-togethers that nearby relatives take for granted.

Here and there, small signs exist of a growing desire in some families to bridge the miles permanently. Del Webb Corp. is building its first Sun City retirement community in the Frost Belt, in Huntley, Ill. Developers say they're appealing to older people who want the advantages of this kind of planned "lifestyle" community but refuse to move away from grown children and grandchildren. Over the river and through the woods still has its appeal.

Still, no amount of wistful Norman Rockwell nostalgia can bring back the days when roots ran deeper and moving vans were a rarer sight. Instead, those of us living in distant area codes and ZIP Codes will gather around less-familiar holiday tables next week and give thanks not only for our faraway families but also for our close-at-hand surrogate "family" of friends.

At the same time, we're already booking airline tickets for December and tuning up our voices to sing a holiday classic: "I'll be home for Christmas" - and that's a promise.

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