A Taylor-Made Thanksgiving for Four MCS Families

By Al Daniel

Audrey Howarth ’07 — the eldest of eight Montessori Community School alumni who make a downstate North Carolina farm their common Thanksgiving destination — cannot pinpoint the dawn of the ritual.

“I was just a wee pup,” she said.

Even Patrick Taylor ’10, a member of the host family, admits he has a clouded recollection of the early years. Still, he offered, the years since keep yielding “innumerable memories that I cherish.”

Now nearly six-and-a-half years after any of them took an MCS class, Audrey, Patrick, Lucy Dempsey ’08, Alice Dempsey ’13, Amy Hicks ’11, Shelby Hicks ’09, Trevor Howarth ’09, and Kathryn Taylor ’09 still join their immediate families plus grandparents, a few other extended relatives, and sometimes significant others in Wadesboro for the November holiday.

A two-hour drive south of everyone’s Durham-Chapel Hill roots, the farm sits in a town synonymous with the Taylor bloodline and signifies vital continuity in the lives they once shared every day. Katie Taylor — Kathryn and Patrick’s mother — confirms they started inviting fellow MCS families to Thanksgiving more than two decades ago, before some of the alumni were born.

“Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday for our family because we treasure the time with our old friends and the chance to reconnect, as the kids have scattered to different places these days,” she said. She added that the setting “feels like a real retreat.”

That notion is most apparent in that everyone willingly, if not enthusiastically, eschews electronics for at least three days and nights.

“The farm is a perfect place,” said Trevor, “with tons of space for people to eat, sleep, cook, and hang out together. At this point, the location is an integral part of the experience, and we all strongly associate the natural beauty of the property as well as the cozy house with the celebration.”

Did someone say mindfulness in nature? Almost, although they might as well have.

“The farm doesn’t have great cellphone reception,” said Lucy, “and the whole week is a chance to unplug and spend time outside with both my immediate family and the larger group of longtime friends.”

In one exception to the abstinence from technology, Amy, a creative content professional, composed a short YouTube scrapbook of 2017’s dinner. The upload utilizes up-to-date definition and audio, but otherwise resembles a home-movie reel from the mid-20th century.

It opens with an overview of the décor (mostly furnished by Amy’s mother, Anita) and the sound of Hoyt Taylor — Kathryn and Patrick’s father and a longtime MCS Trustee — addressing the “atmosphere, friendship, hospitality, laughter, and meditation.” Then more voices break into the last line of “The More We Get Together.”

Despite today’s dearth of children in attendance (Audrey is apt to include quotation marks when self-assigning the term “kids” to her generation), the song selection is suitable.

“It’s a nice feeling being back with a group of people who shared so many of your formative childhood memories and understand the importance of your early experiences,” Lucy said.

At their Durham-area home, the Taylors grew up within walking distance of the Hicks and Howarth residences. Even before he enrolled in school, Trevor says the Taylors became “a best-friend family to mine.”

Amy, the alumni octet’s second-youngest member, recalls joining in as a toddler when she and her peers passed their summer afternoons around the cul-de-sac, anticipating the neighborhood ice-cream truck. The households regularly shared meals and the kids engaged in indoor and outdoor games, which carried over to the MCS playground.

Audrey fondly remembers the commute to campus in the Taylors’ Volvo station wagon, whose rear-facing seats riveted the guests. “Each morning began with a fight for those coveted spots while the stereo player blasted either the Dixie Chicks, 3 Doors Down, or Jack Johnson,” she said.

Nearly a decade into its annual renewal, Thanksgiving on the farm became the families’ sole constant as the students began dispersing to high school and beyond.

The Dempsey sisters went to Durham Academy while everyone else attended Jordan High School, where Patrick was valedictorian in 2015. By the time Trevor followed his forte to the North Carolina School of Science & Math in 2011, Alice was the last enrolled Mustang.

Shelby and Patrick — a Durham fitness instructor and a postgraduate research scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, respectively — have stayed close to home. The others range from Massachusetts to California.

Amy has been one of the group’s world travelers, often doing so for professional purposes. But while she might have the most varied passport at the Thanksgiving table, she finds equal intrigue catching up with her friends.

“We are an adventurous group, so it’s fascinating to hear about where everyone has traveled to,” she said. “I think that nature was instilled in us at MCS, to be independent and see the world with curious eyes.”

To that point, Alice and Lucy grace Greater Boston and the Beltway as an undergraduate computer science major and Doctor of Law candidate, respectively. Kathryn joined the cybersecurity department at Goldman Sachs in New York City this past March. Trevor is on the opposite coast, translating his computer science minor from Stanford University to a start-up in Silicon Valley.

“This variety of endeavors exemplifies the confidence MCS instills in its students,” mused Trevor. “It shows you how to be confident in pursuing what you want regardless of how it is viewed more widely.”

Patrick supported that assessment by voicing a similar observation with a different vocabulary. “I think one common thread is that we tend to be well-adjusted, happy people who are excellent at what we choose to do, though those choices may be highly dissimilar,” he said.

But wherever and however they spend the other 51 weeks, when the almanac nears its switch, everyone has a literal common ground to return to.

“My favorite thing about the tradition is how much it evolves each year, and yet stays the same,” Lucy said.

That goes for the company and some of the leisure, which also carries over from everyone’s one-time campus.

Lucy has kept her welcome-to-Lower-Elementary letter from Audrey, who was her mentor buddy in 2000-01. After Kathryn and Shelby — who started at MCS as toddlers in 1996 — rose to Lucy’s level, the three played soccer together (as did Trevor), representing the rebranded Mustangs. The players picked the new mascot over its Meerkat predecessor in a hand-raising vote on the team bus.

Soccer, which the Hicks sisters played competitively through college, was also a staple in the Thanksgiving gathering’s formative years. Roundnet, a volleyball-type game otherwise known as Spikeball, has become another favorite. The various pairs of former MCS parents sustain their solidarity with the sport year-round.

On the farm, all generations break out an oversized ball for what Shelby calls a “highly competitive” kickball contest. Less strenuous recreation options include card games, board games, collecting firewood, arts and crafts, and shooting skeet.

Some pastimes have been notably retired. Kathryn and Audrey used to make a speedway of the farmland, joyriding on the Taylors’ golf cart through mud, dirt, and tree stumps. Patrick and Trevor formerly engaged in eating contests, but the latter admits that “without fail we would both end up with serious stomach pain, feeling that we had somehow both lost. In recent years we’ve gained the wisdom not to eat ourselves into oblivion like that.”

These days, Patrick prefers filling the less vigorous hours with what he calls “ambient serenades” on his guitar. Several farm-goers also go on a run and join a collaborative, gratitude-themed art project to fill the lead-up to the main meal. At the table, everyone has a turn recounting their respective developments since last time.

“I think that’s very Montessori,” said Lucy, “sitting in a circle and learning more about things happening in others’ lives.”

Another MCS principle —determining what works best for oneself, and often in a creative fashion — comes up when everyone retires for the evening. With as many as 30 people staying over, one may opt to sleep in a backyard tent, on the front porch, or on a living-room couch.

In daylight, interdependence comes up bigger and bolder by the year. Months’ worth of fallen branches scatter the spacious grass, and everyone is ready to help clear it. The wood will fuel an after-hours bonfire.

Back inside, some alums are keen on contributing more to Thursday’s spread. On a recent flight, Audrey picked up a Bon Appétit magazine and found a recipe for pecan-rye pumpkin pie, which she hopes to produce at this year’s dinner.

“The food honestly gets better every year,” said Lucy. Part of that comes from more alumni having graduated college, launched their careers, and started cooking for themselves.

Lucy can vouch for herself on that front, and while she admits her kitchen craft still does not match that of the more experienced farm-goers, she says, “I’ve been thinking about teaming up with my sister to make something simple to bring this year.”

To date, the Howarths have supplied the stuffing. While Katie takes charge of the turkey, Kathryn is the resident cranberry jelly specialist and inscribes each diner’s place card. Other standard side dishes plus decorative candles are courtesy of the three visiting former MCS mothers: Molly Dempsey, Anita Hicks, and Robin Howarth.

“It’s all very dynamic,” Patrick said of the contributions.

“The aromas of the house distill so many memories,” added Amy of the results.

Various desserts — such as Anita’s pumpkin cheesecake and Robin’s apple pie — become a leftover bounty for Black Friday breakfast, after which the crowd swells.

On Friday, the core group invites additional friends for an overnight or a share in the traditional pig roast. While shoppers bust doors back in the real world, Kathryn and Patrick’s paternal uncle Lockhart wakes up to smoke a definitive North Carolina main course, which the guests complement with what Trevor calls “classic Southern sides.” E.g. barbecued beans, coleslaw, and Molly’s mac and cheese.

The Taylors and their guests produce and consume so much together that some of them have contemplated compiling a cookbook specific to their unique take on Thanksgiving weekend.

“I hope we can pass this tradition down to the next generation one day,” said Shelby.

Audrey seconds that sentiment, but when everyone assembles for the holiday, someday takes a backseat to the bliss of today.

“Each year, despite our personal pursuits, we are all able to come together, put our phones down, and truly relax for the Thanksgiving weekend,” said Audrey. “While we engage about our latest endeavors, hopes, and dreams, the farm provides a space where we can focus on the present moment, enjoy the company of a truly extended family, and take a pause from the stresses of the future.”