They Welcomed Dozens for Thanksgiving. Now What?

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GRANGER, Ind. — Dr. Jan Sanders was the first Black pediatrician to have her own practice here. Her husband, Leo McWilliams, is an assistant dean in the University of Notre Dame engineering department and a “quadruple Domer,” a title bestowed on the rare graduate with four degrees from the school.

But what’s truly impressive is the amount of food they cook for Thanksgiving.

One turkey comes off Leo’s grill, and another out of a smoker. He’s from Memphis, so there are ribs, chicken and brisket, too. Jan makes at least four styles of dressing, and simmers 35 bunches of turnip and mustard greens. She builds pans of macaroni and cheese, and bakes her mother’s brown sugar poundcake. Their sons, Cheyney, 28, and Quinlan, 25, boil pounds of sweet potatoes to make the pies.

Ever since the sons were in elementary school, the couple have hosted Thanksgiving in their cozy two-story house on a cul-de-sac in this suburb of South Bend. The guest list has included almost every lonely Black freshman enrolled at Notre Dame, a school where only about 3 percent of the 8,600 or so undergraduates are African-American.

There are Dreamers, too, those young adult immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. International students show up, along with scholarship kids from small towns who need to be convinced that they really do belong at an elite university.

“We try to give them a space to vent things they perhaps couldn’t vent in other spaces, and to get a friendly ear and friendly advice,” Leo said.

More than 60 people packed into the house last year to share nearly 50 dishes, each of which Jan documented in a handwritten list. But this year, the house will be mostly empty, save for the immediate family. The menu is down to 12 dishes and dessert.

Social scientists use the term collective effervescence to describe the heightened sense of belonging and well-being that comes with a shared ritual. It’s what makes going to a concert or a baseball game feel so good. The spirit of the group is bigger than what anyone could experience individually. It’s one of the building blocks of culture.

Kelly Alexander, a food studies professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote about collective effervescence in her doctoral dissertation. She and other anthropologists are taking note of what happens when a nation is deprived of in-person gathering on Thanksgiving.

“Is the one year we have to sit it out that big of a deal?” she asked. “Maybe not. But we have to acknowledge it, because it will have an effect.”

For the kindred souls who have come to rely on Thanksgiving at Jan and Leo’s, the void will be particularly gaping. Most will be left to celebrate alone or in small groups, contemplating a year that delivered a series of national crises that hit them particularly hard: the killings of Black people at the hands of police officers and the resulting uproar over systemic racism; the coronavirus, which is still raging through communities of color at disproportionate rates; the bruised economy; the exhausting election and its aftermath.

“If there was ever a year when we needed to all be together, this is it,” said Richard G. Jones, the director of the Gallivan Journalism Program at Notre Dame and a former New York Times editor who usually gets extra helpings of Leo’s smoked salmon every Thanksgiving.

Shaquille Johnson, 25, could have really used a Thanksgiving meal at Jan and Leo’s, too. After graduating from Notre Dame, he landed a job as a software engineer for Google. When Covid-19 closed the company’s California campus, he and other young tech workers who could work from anywhere left the Bay Area in search of cheaper rent or a change of scenery.

Now he is in Austin, Texas, but most of his family is in Chicago. His grandmother is a health aide whose hours have been drastically cut, so he sends her money. He worries about his uncle, who lost so much business in the pandemic that he had to close his chicken-and-burger restaurant in Chicago. His aunt folded her halal food business in Wisconsin for the same reasons.

“It’s tough times, and it sucks,” Mr. Johnson said.

This Thanksgiving he’ll probably make his way to Chicago, but his heart will be at Jan and Leo’s, where he met some of his best friends and found a family who understood how it felt when white students told him he was the first Black person they’d ever met, or asked if it was all right to use the N-word.

“It was the one time you could get together and know for sure there wouldn’t be any racism there,” he said. “You could relax.”

The scene was the same every year. All the young people would crowd into the basement to play Jenga or Mario Kart before heading upstairs to share a meal with Jan and Leo’s neighbors and family friends. Once dessert was over and at least some of the dishes had been washed, everyone jumped in line to do the Cupid Shuffle or the Wobble, with Jan leading the way.

Deborah Bineza could really use a party like that this year. She graduated in 2019, and works as a program coordinator at the university’s gender relations center. She feels lucky to be employed. Many of her friends have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

She fell into Jan and Leo’s orbit when she was a freshman, and met their son Quinlan at an interfaith choir practice. She didn’t have the money to go home to Nashville for Thanksgiving, and figured she would spend the holiday on campus, alone. Then Quinlan invited her to his parents’.

[Thanksgiving will be different this year. Here are hundreds of our best Thanksgiving recipes from NYT Cooking to help.]

Ms. Bineza was a vegetarian at the time, and just like the Muslim Thanksgiving guests who don’t eat pork, she found plenty of dishes prepared with people like her in mind. Jan and Leo quickly became her champions, meeting with her and other students at a Starbucks every Sunday to talk over life and solve problems.

“They made that space where you can go be around other Black people and not have to explain what is going on or how you are feeling, and just be able to experience joy,” she said. “It’s difficult to not have that this year.”

Instead, she’ll check in with her family online — her parents had mild cases of Covid over the summer — but stay in South Bend for a small dinner with her partner and her roommate.

Michael Sills, 25, and his brother, Wiett Sills, 23, who are white, found a different kind of solace at those Thanksgiving gatherings. They came to Notre Dame from San Diego, but had to think twice before spending money on a plane ticket home for the holiday. They were homesick, and feeling for the first time in their lives what it meant to not be as wealthy as others.

“I never realized other people had yachts and went on skiing trips on the weekend until I went to Notre Dame,” Michael said.

They became regulars at Jan and Leo’s, bringing their grandmother’s banana pudding and leaving with pans of macaroni and cheese that Jan made especially for them.

Thanksgiving at the couple’s house would have been a nice reprieve this year, Michael said. He is in South Bend, trying to start his own banking analytics business, but it’s slow going. He and his girlfriend have had some rocky times. And like many young people, he is struggling with his mental health during the pandemic.

He hasn’t seen his family since February. The brothers hope to get to San Diego if everyone can agree on Covid protocols.

“I’m just trying to breathe,” he said.

The Notre Dame gathering isn’t just for students. Jan and Leo have collected plenty of older adults along the way.

There is the retired schoolteacher from Chicago who is such a regular that she keeps a nightgown in a drawer in the guest room, and the fellow professors who offer Jewish blessings before dinner. There are the neighbors who always lent them oven space, and came over until they moved to Colorado. The mother of one son’s girlfriend came even after they broke up.

“Our gatherings are not just for food,” Jan said. “It’s for community and for closeness.”

Jan and Leo have been married for 35 years, and are very clear about how and why they built this Thanksgiving tradition.

Their parents set the example, and their life experiences showed them how much a little help can mean. Their faith — they are members of Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in South Bend — amplifies their desire to help people. And Leo remembers when he was a freshman and spent Thanksgiving alone on campus.

“It’s in our DNA,” he said.

This year, the house will be quiet. Except for a few athletes, the students will have left campus by Thanksgiving and won’t be back until February. The virus will keep everyone else away.

So Jan and Leo will be left with their immediate family. They’ll pick up Jan’s 88-year-old mother, who lives 10 minutes away. Cheyney, a medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine who had a mild case of Covid this fall, lives on his own in South Bend. Quinlan graduated from Notre Dame and is now a software engineer for Target.

He’ll drive in from Minneapolis, where the pain over George Floyd’s death in May, and the protests that followed, struck deep.

“I don’t think I realized how much it affected me until maybe September,” he said. “The last thing I needed to see, or any of us needed to see, was another Black person being killed by police. You end up asking yourself, how much more can I take?”

So they will cook. And cook. Leo will grill a turkey and smoke a side of salmon. Jan’s list of side dishes has already grown. The boys will make pies. There will be poundcake.

“We can’t help ourselves,” Jan said. “We just don’t know how to cook for four.”

And they don’t know how not to feed other people. They’ve stocked the storage cupboard in the basement with disposable containers, and they’ve made a list of people they plan to deliver Thanksgiving dinner to.

First up will be Isabel Jakab, who came to the United States in 1980 to escape the civil war in El Salvador and ended up teaching Spanish at Notre Dame for 25 years. She is 79, and started going to Jan and Leo’s for Thanksgiving after her husband died nine years ago. She hasn’t visited friends or even ventured out to grocery shop since the pandemic hit in March. Even having workers come to the house for repairs makes her nervous.

Virginia Montero-Smith, 57, is on the list, too. She has spent 15 Thanksgivings with the family. Ms. Montero-Smith is from Venezuela, and began tutoring the boys in Spanish before they were in first grade. She and the family became so close that after she divorced, she lived in their basement until she could get back on her feet.

Normally, she is in charge of carving the turkey. But not this year.

“If you have Jan and Leo as friends, you don’t need anybody else,” she said. “They are like sunshine.”

Most likely, the list of people the couple feeds this Thanksgiving will grow right up until Thanksgiving morning. It’s a good bet that there will be some new names on it. “We are always collecting people,” Jan said.

Next year, if it’s safe to gather, they can show up at Jan and Leo’s, make a plate and become a kindred soul, too.



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