Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving....Part One
Me and the Aunts
I grew up in a Brooklyn brownstone crammed to the rafters with family. Maiden aunts downstairs, their apartment was my destination for endless games of cards and hide and seek. Two old ladies with infinite patience and endless cans of fruit cocktail lining their pantry shelves, they served the syrupy treat in fluted pink glass dishes and would always spoon over their maraschino cherries to me, the only child in the house.

I lived on the middle floor. Sharing the "railroad flat" with my mother and my grandparents, I snuck Hershey's Kisses from the "chocolate drawer" and spent endless hours reading by the bay window which looked out on the most beautiful street in New York City--simply by virtue of the fact that it was my street. My best friend and playmate, Wendy, lived on the corner. My grammar school was a block in the other direction and my world was small and insulated. I had no concept of the stresses my mother dealt with on a daily basis--money worries and a violent ex-husband, large among them. 

Upstairs, on the top floor, lived my uncle and aunt. It was there, through my Tia Maria, that I learned to love Spanish tele-novelas (even though I had to deduce the story line solely from the eye-brow arching and musical clues), fried plaintains and jibaro music from the hills of Puerto Rico. Their apartment, filled with cats and sunshine,was another safe haven for a little girl.

On Thanksgiving, everyone would convene downstairs at what appeared to be a huge table. If you looked closely, you could see that its' expanse was pieced together from several tables of almost imperceptibly varying heights and widths. Covered with table cloths--some brought across the ocean from Hungary in huge steamer trunks, the irregularities didn't matter. And, when piled high with the culinary efforts of several different participating cooks, you couldn't tell at all. 

My grandmother did the lion's share of the cooking. There is no one as patriotic or as determined to celebrate an American holiday as a grateful immigrant who owed her life and ensuing progeny to the beneficence of an adoptive land. This was grandma..and she'd start cooking days before the big event. The meal started with soup and went on to include turkey, chicken and brisket, three or four types of stuffing, cranberry sauce from a can at which we all would marvel due to its texture and jiggly nature and mountains of fluffy mashed potatoes. Overflowing its bowl, Hungarian cucumber salad, vinegary and tart, made us blink and green glass bottles of soda punctuated the already colorful spread. We'd all eat like we were proving our right to citizenship with every delicious mouthful. Dessert was homemade strudels--apple and cheese--made upstairs on a small formica kitchen table from dough stretched thin enough so that through it, newsprint could be read. Coffee was drunk light, cigars were smoked indoors and I often fell asleep, leaning against my mother's cool arm, tummy stretched to bursting. I enjoyed the snug sleep reserved for lucky children.

I was thankful then, only I didn't realize it.
(to be continued.....)

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