Thanksgiving Italian Style: Early Lessons In Diversity and Sharing in West New Rochelle, NY

 

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Near the Third Avenue Bridge in Harlem – Mary Grace Whalen

 

“Lasagna?” replied my daughter’s second-grade teacher.  This was in response to hearing her answer to the question, “What do we eat on Thanksgiving Day?”  Well, this is partly true, at least in my family.  We ate lasagna AND turkey.  But lasagna was always the superstar of the day.  As it might first appear, food is a huge part of Thanksgiving for all of us.  But it has taken me decades to decipher and realize what the day was really about and the lessons my parents taught us.

The day before Thanksgiving, my father would journey out from our home in West New Rochelle, NY to go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to hand pick huge tins brimming with fresh ricotta cheese, mozzarella, soppressata, anchovies, pecorino cheese, kalamata olives, stuffed green olives, chestnuts, figs, hazelnuts, filberts, loaves of warm Italian bread and other delectable yummies for the upcoming festivities.

It was the 1950s, and Santa Claus would arrive via helicopter shortly before Thanksgiving, landing in the parking lot of Arnold Constable, a local department store in my hometown.  The night before Thanksgiving, our mothers would take a break from their baking, ditch their aprons, and prepare to stand out in the freezing cold in their house dresses bundled up with their families to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Children would be lifted above their parents’ shoulders to watch the marching bands and floats.  Finally, the man in the red suit himself would ride his “sleigh” on a float down Main Street, past the Mayflower Dress Shop, F.W. Woolworth’s, Bloomingdale’s and the thriving downtown amid waving and cheering children.

Thanksgiving morning, the aroma of all my mother’s baked goods would permeate the house.  The dining room table would display her labor of love, –mincemeat, pumpkin and apple pies, Italian ricotta cheesecake, strufoli (honey balls) and Italian cookies.  The local football game between New Rochelle High School and Iona Prep would be televised in the living room, family members switching channels intermittently to catch a bit of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Miracle on 34th Street.

For this was the official beginning of the Christmas season in my family.  My mother would pull out her poinsettia or “Christmas Bells” tablecloth.  Candy dishes would be filled with ribbon candy, candy canes, and foil-wrapped red and green chocolates.  What I didn’t get until years later was that it wasn’t about the food at all.

My mother was orphaned at 12 years old.  My father was raised by a single parent in Francavilla, Italy.  They understood about bringing everyone to their table, celebrating life every chance they could and sharing.  Often we would have so many people at our table, my mother would need to extend the table by rolling the kitchen table into the dining room to accommodate everyone.  We were a family of seven children, but there was always room for more neighbors, friends, and family.

Otto, a jovial German-born man with a Humpty-Dumpty frame and a penchant for astrology and numerology would often celebrate with us.  He was a co-worker of my father’s.  My father’s boss, Ernie, a Hungarian Jew, and his wife were often invited.  In the 1950s we had many Italian relatives who arrived from Italy knowing few people.  They were often guests at our table.  My father knew a few German phrases he learned from his long-time friendship with Otto.  He also knew a little Yiddish learned from working with Ernie.  It was interesting to hear the dialogue being exchanged in four languages in simple phrases or a native tongue across the table on Thanksgiving.

We always knew when the festivities were about to begin.  We would hear our mother say, “Scram! Everyone out of my kitchen now!”  Amid pots bubbling with vegetables preserved from my father’s garden, stuffing perfectly timed, a lasagna to die for, a turkey so huge it would put your back out for a week to lift and every inch of the oven occupied, you had better clear the pathway from the oven to the table because my mother meant business when she was ready to serve.  She would trek back and forth on the maroon and gray paisley linoleum from the oven to the table proudly displaying each of her own personal creations.

As we gathered, the simple unadorned chandelier would be lit.  My father uncorked a bottle of his homemade wine.  My mother’s “good” china with etchings of colonial women in long dresses promenading with men in powdered wigs was set.  We had glasses and silverware from S&H Green Stamps.  The feast was about to begin.  I thought we were rich. Maybe we were.

Plates would be filled, and if a guest cleaned their plate without asking for seconds, my father would ask, “What, you gave up?”  Before the guest could even respond, my mother would be scooping more food on their plate.  That’s Italian!  If my sisters and brothers or I left anything on our plates, my father would quickly remind us that there is someone in the world who was starving.  My sister Lucille always wanted the wishbone and loved to challenge someone to split it.  She always seemed to know how to win the challenge.

So, you might ask, how about an attitude of gratitude and giving thanks?  Our faith was the core of our values.  Sure, we gave cans of food at Thanksgiving.  We went to church and prayed.  We offered thanks for all we had, but my parents always had a soft spot for someone alone or who may have fallen on hard times ANY day of the year.

I remember in grade school, an African-American family that lived around the corner from us lost everything in a house fire.  The children in the family were approximately the same ages as my siblings and I.  When my mother heard of the fire, she woke us up early and instructed us to look through our clothes and give her anything that didn’t fit us anymore.  The clothes were quickly placed in boxes for the family.  So she got a message to the family, and they quickly accepted the offer.  My mother grew up during the depression era.  She often spoke of not owning a winter coat in her adolescent years.  I remember seeing one of the children that were a victim of the house fire on the playground wearing a gray and turquoise tweed dress coat that had been mine.  It never hit me until years later how that act of kindness must have impacted that family.

So when my father retired from his factory job, after 35 years and their children were grown and out of the house, my parents would go to the supermarket once a week and shop for groceries.  They would do one round of shopping for themselves and another round of dry and canned goods for a local soup kitchen.

This is what I remember about Thanksgiving, and I am grateful for these early lessons.  Happy Thanksgiving to you as you gather with your circle of family and friends who are family.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.

IT’S ALWAYS HARD TO SAY GOODBYE TO A GOOD THING

One of the greatest experiences of my life has been to be given the opportunity to teach college-level courses to young adults and returning adult learners.

I went to college late in life, at the age of 48 after working as a secretary for almost 30 years. Facing the blackboard for the first time in three decades was both scary and thrilling. It was scary because it had been a long time since I was in a classroom setting. I was returning to school with an FM system in hand due to a progressive hearing loss. It was thrilling because going to college was one of the greatest opportunities experienced in my lifetime. It helped me to view life through a wider lens. It also gave me the courage to believe I was up for the challenge as my world slowly became more silent.

After completing my M.S., I now had my back to the blackboard, facing a large classroom full of eager students. Never in my earlier life did I ever think I would be teaching.

For the last twelve years, I have taught students about James Joyce, Maya Angelou, Henry David Thoreau and many other great writers. Patiently, I have helped them navigate their way through MLA research methods. I have also had the honor of helping adult learners compile their portfolio for credit for life experience, understand learning theories and apply them through practice.

These students from adolescence to retirement age have seen me scout around the classroom with an FM system in hand pointing the microphone in the direction of the student speaking. I always told them on the first day of class to just think of me as a talk-show host. It was inspiring and heartwarming to see how supportive these young people and adult learners were of my hearing loss.

Over the years, many students in crisis reached out to me, and I was honored they entrusted their confidence in my judgment to direct them to resources that could assist them. I was also honored that years after being in my classroom many students continue to contact me just to say hello, or “Happy Thanksgiving” or “thanks for everything.”

We are so attuned to being conscious of the student in the classroom who may have special needs, but sometimes it is the instructor. But, I learned a lot from my students. One of the most profound moments for me was my experience with a young man who openly discussed his autism with the class. On the last day of class he waited until everyone left the classroom and he asked me, “What does it feel like to be deaf?” I was touched by his sensitivity.

My teaching experience has always been a very positive one. So, when I started to lose more of my hearing this past spring, it was a difficult question to ponder. Should I continue on in the classroom? Don’t get me wrong. Over the last 30 years, I have done headstands to assert my place in the workplace. But life changes.

One day, across the room I read the lips of a young man who without any intended malice lamented to a student next to him, “She can’t hear.” At that moment, I knew I had crossed a threshold, and my sense of integrity forced me to ask myself if it would be a disservice to the students to continue on if I was struggling to communicate with them.

Then there was the day we were discussing wellness in one of my classes. I thought a student said something about how wheat affects us. I went through this whole rant about gluten and how the students could research how wheat has been modified over the years. The student gently told me she wasn’t commenting on wheat, she was speaking about weed. Well so, there is a lighter side to these things sometimes. We all shared a laugh about that.

It is always hard to say goodbye to a good thing. But I’m glad I recognize when it is time to go. I have many warm and wonderful memories. In the classroom, I always tried to treat students the way I would want someone to treat my own children. Let them know you believe in them. Let them know it’s okay if they don’t understand something. None of us are perfect.

I think the kids thought I was cool because I was open about my hearing loss, and it was okay to be something less than perfect. Maybe too, they will remember me as someone who had her own struggles and made it to the finish line in her education and life goals. If that inspires them to continue on with their own roadblocks, something good has come out of my own personal loss. So the positive side of the coin is that I will have more time for another passion, writing. But I will surely miss them. MGW

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.