What Will Happen to Uncle Bob?

11/23/2011 09:04 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2012

A friend's daughter was married last spring, much to her mother's joy. A nice guy with a good job who clearly adores and is worthy of her 28-year-old daughter. What my friend didn't count on was that with the formation of this new household would come new holiday traditions.

My friend has always had Thanksgiving at her house. One of her sisters-in-law brings the pies, another makes the appetizers. When the cousins are in town, they all come too. It's a festive, loud, loving multi-generational family tradition that has been going on for almost three decades.

And with the announcement by her daughter that she and her new spouse wanted to actually use some of those expensive wedding gifts and hold Thanksgiving at her apartment, my friend felt her world ending.

She knew the day would come, she says, when her babies would have babies of their own. At some point beyond that, she says, she expected the celebration of holidays to shift from her dining room to theirs. She's played the conversation out in her head a million times: She and her husband would be the ones asking that the meals be scheduled so they don't have to drive home in the dark -- just like her own mother-in-law asks every year. She also expected that when the time came, her own daughters would respond with "Mom, don't worry. Jack will pick you up and take you home. You just come and eat, enjoy and relax." She just never expected to be inching toward that day quite this soon.

The bottom line is, my friend doesn't want to give up the tradition of holding Thanksgiving at her house just yet. Her excuses flew fast and furiously to her daughter. But "Your apartment is lovely, but it's too small for all of us" only led to another shocker: Her daughter planned on keeping it small -- just the two sets of parents and one sister in town.

My friend next tried "But you don't know how to cook a big meal like this," only to be reminded that her daughter had stood by her side for years of holiday meal preparation, watching, learning, laughing the way a mother and daughter do when they sip wine too early in the day and discuss turkey stuffing.

Lastly, my friend pulled out all the stops: "What will happen to Uncle Bob?" At 85, her mother-in-law's brother had been joining the family gathering since his wife passed. He participated more as an observer than anything else, but without the gathering, where would he celebrate Thanksgiving?

The thought of Uncle Bob eating alone on a TV tray was almost too much for both mother and daughter to bear. So was the rift of a daughter pulling away with a mother unready for her to do so.

Life is about compromises. And whether we like it or not, when a new family holiday tradition begins, another one fades away. But new ones must begin. The question is when the family nucleus shifts and which household becomes its vortex.

I shared with my friend the story of a neighbor's granddaughter who lamented that she had never spent Christmas morning in her own house, always going to Grandma's on Christmas Eve and spending the night. "I never woke up in my own house on Christmas morning," she told me as a 16-year-old. Her grandparents had never let go of their ownership of the holiday and her parents had never insisted. Don't do that, I told my friend, don't be afraid of moving to the next stage.

It's hard to let go of the moments we love, the traditions we created and still cherish. But not unlike making room in the closet, some things need to be tossed out to make room for the new.

Occasionally though, the best solution is just to expand the closet. Thanksgiving dinner this year will be at the mom's. A new tradition of watching football while eating Chinese take-out on good china on the Sunday after Thanksgiving at the daughter's has been announced. And Uncle Bob? He's coming to both.