For 18 years I've been hosting Thanksgiving dinner at my house--and I confess to getting a little tired of it. Last year I remember feeling distinctly unthankful as I cleaned the house, polished the silver, shopped, cooked the dinner--all in a manic two-day marathon to finish by 2 p.m. on Thursday when the 14 or so family members were due to arrive. My husband and son contributed by setting the table, then disappeared to watch football--and the rest of my extended family was about as helpful.

My cousins, delegated to make a salad, arrived late with a big cellophane bag of lettuce and several tomatoes, which they handed me at the door. My mother, who prides herself on not having cooked since 1967, is more about entertainment than domesticity. Pitching in and hanging out in the kitchen isn't anyone's forte. There was clearly a Mary-and-Martha thing going on, with me in the Martha role. Mom, a lifelong Manhattanite, heard my whining and suggested that next year just the immediate family would make reservations somewhere. The cousins would fend for themselves.

And then Sept. 11 happened. Since many of us live and work in or near New York City, there was a flurry of phone calls ascertaining everyone's safety and whereabouts. My daughter, who was in the process of moving to the West Coast, had just arrived in San Francisco on Sept. 9 (in an earlier plan, she had been scheduled to fly out on Sept. 11). Thanksgiving was not on anyone's radar--crowded out by fears of continuing terrorism.

Suddenly it's here. No more talk of restaurants or family splinter groups. Relatives who haven't joined us for years are driving in from other states--and I'm thrilled! My 92-year-old great aunt, coming up from Maryland, is a star attraction. Everyone wants to see Aunt Grace, whose white-haired dignity, old-fashioned values, and, let's face it, longevity make us all feel more rooted in a dangerously shifting world. Even my daughter is flying in from Oregon. She loves her new life out West, but she's homesick.

I have a feeling our family is fairly typical of families all over the country. A friend was shocked when her 22-year-old son, who has been a teacher volunteer in rural China since August, begged to come home for the holiday--a grueling 26-hour trip for a relatively short visit. This year, more than ever, we have a profound need to be under the same roof, to celebrate this distinctly American holiday of harvest and home together. Something in the nature of a pilgrimage is taking place, with today's pilgrims journeying to a symbolic Plymouth Rock that has been severely scarred but not broken.

But vying with the urge to gather together is a fear of long-distance travel that has caused airline bookings to be substantially lower than last year. This anxiety has manifested itself in my family too. A close family member who is psychic refuses to cross any bridges with her two young children, having had a clear recurring vision of disaster on a bridge. "My 'thing' doesn't warn me about you, it warns me about me," she said reassuringly. But it will prevent her from driving to my state from where she lives--two bridge crossings are involved. I utterly respect her intuition and know that many people without her psychic gifts feel the same way about traveling these days. But I'm saddened that "Over the River and Through the Wood" has turned into an unbridgeable gulf.

As I ponder the growing number at my dinner table--now up to 19--I confess I'm thinking less about the work, the food, and where to get enough chairs. I'm thinking more about saying grace, talking about gratitude, and whether in our multi-faith family it would be too sappy to suggest we all sing the traditional Dutch folk song entitled "Protection." Over the years it evolved into the hymn that begins "We gather together..." Somehow I think it will be just the right thing.

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