Mary Schmich: Thanksgiving at the Hughes house

Thanks to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich for her insightful column about holiday traditions at our house – and many, many houses like ours.

walker kissWalker Hughes, 29, gets a goodbye kiss from his mother, Ellen Hughes, at the Clearbrook CHOICE Center in Evanston. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Thanksgiving for Family a Ritual of Frenetic Togetherness

by Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune
November 24, 2015

Over the years, Walker Hughes’ parents have learned how to customize his Thanksgiving, a ritual that begins early in the day.

Because Walker gets agitated staying in the house while his mother cooks, he and his father ride the Red Line down to State and Lake streets to watch the Thanksgiving parade.

Walker loves the parade but he can’t stay long — too much noise and color, the sensory overload of the human swarm — so when he’s had enough, he and his father start walking.

They walk around the Loop, head up Michigan Avenue, north toward the lake, walking, walking, often all the way home to Wrigleyville, arriving a little before dinner.

The Hughes’ house near the Belmont “L” stop is small, nothing like the farm where, for several years when Walker was young, his parents took him for an extended-clan gathering, the closest the family has ever come to a Thanksgiving that looks normal.

Out in the open land of Tennessee, Walker’s autism was easier to accommodate. He could bolt up from the table whenever he wanted, go out and roam to his heart’s content, with no one worried he’d dart into a busy street.

Here in Chicago, even now that Walker is 29, Thanksgiving is more complicated though it’s smaller: just Walker, his parents and his younger brother, Dave.

The meal is traditional and ample. A giant turkey, Ellen’s special stuffing and pumpkin pie. But no guests, no collective gushing over the big bird, no extended toasts.

Walker, who can speak but doesn’t converse, eats in a minute or two, usually while one of his parents sits with him at the table. Someone is likely to eat on the couch.

Then it’s on to the next phase of the ritual, which may involve “The Muppet Christmas Carol.”

His parents sum the day up in one word: frenetic.

“We’ve had to let go, let go of expectations about pretty pictures of what Thanksgiving is supposed to look like, really in our hearts let go,” his father, Bob Hughes, said when I called Tuesday. “We’ve had to build a different image of holiday in the house.”

Hughes, a retired Truman College English professor, has written about his son through the years, most notably in his 2003 book, “Running With Walker.” He is about to publish a sequel, “Walker Finds a Way: Running Into the Adult World with Autism.”

Knowing how many families deal with similar issues, I called to ask him about holidays with his son, who lives these days in a group home but visits on weekends and holidays.

Neither Bob nor Ellen, a freelance grant writer, pretends that it’s easy. They find consolation in the small things, such as the way Walker lights up at the sound of a Christmas carol or the sight of a Christmas tree.

“My dream of putting out my beautiful china and candles,” Ellen Hughes said, “I have to forget that. But that’s OK with me. You live the life you live and I adore him.”

For many people, maybe most, Thanksgiving Day is a thread that runs from childhood through old age, its traditions designed to connect the present to the past.

Bob Hughes remembers his childhood Thanksgivings in Oak Lawn, with his five siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, three long rented tables in the basement, the games of box hockey and Clue.

That was never going to be Thanksgiving with Walker.

“It’s been a learning curve,” Hughes said, then he corrected himself. “An acceptance curve.”

Acceptance is the art of turning the difficult into the doable.

After this Thanksgiving dinner, if the ritual goes as usual, Bob and Walker Hughes will get in the car together and drive. Walker likes to ride.

Bob will plug in his earbuds to listen to a book while Walker, who prefers silence, will look out the window.

They’ll drive to various suburban Starbucks — Gurnee, Arlington Heights, Skokie — where the baristas know and greet them, hoping that they’re open.

“We’ll drive and drive,” Bob said, “and he’ll have a smile on his face staring out the window.”

I asked Bob and Ellen Hughes if they ever wished for a simpler, more superficially normal Thanksgiving.

Bob: “Thanksgiving is Walker and Dave. It is the family.”

Ellen: “I never had a Thanksgiving that looks normal. Nobody gets a whole normal set of people. Anyone coming in would think we were tragic, but we’re actually having fun.”

Twitter @MarySchmich


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