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

“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 splitting 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 was 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.

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