Treehouse Chronicles: Thanksgivings I have known and loved
ore than any holiday I know, Thanksgiving seems to thread together for me the strands of nostalgia for the past with anticipation of moments yet to be shared with the people who fill my life today. The holiday season seems to be a telescope back into my youth to a place in which the earliest moments are stored.
From the days in which I was handed round as a pre-toddler, I seem to recall gatherings bringing together the very important people of my young life. I say seem because I don’t know whether I remember directly or only think I do because so many family stories have been told to me.
Now just as we slip into the rhythms of shorter days and longer nights, we find ourselves anticipating yet another Thanksgiving. I must admit I am a bit perplexed that summer has completely folded its tent and left us behind. I have always struggled with the early darkness, accepting its inevitability reluctantly.
In the waning daylight, images of past holidays rush in. People intricately part of my young life fill the rooms of my memories, and I wonder at the catalogue of those long lost to me who step forward in vivid but brief moments of recollection.
Mixing flour and water
There was Grandma Fay, my Dad’s mother, who taught me to make apple pie. I must have been 13 and I was staying with her in what was called in Yiddish a “kauch-a-lain” — a kind of boarding house at Narragansett Pier with an outdoor communal kitchen. We stood in the sunlight of a bright summer morning at a long wooden table and mixed flour and ice water. I remember she said, “Gloria, it’s the ice water that does it! And you must stir it in slowly — one tablespoon at a time!”
And she was right: what started out as a mound of sticky dough formed into a ball which she floured and quickly became “easy to handle.” I wonder now about the ice because all they had at the time were ice boxes, so did my Grandma take an ice pick to a big block of ice and chip away small pieces to chill the water?
No matter, her instructions followed me throughout my teen years into adulthood. In our family, I became the designated pie maker! But truth to tell, more than coming away with a prized recipe to hand down to posterity, making an apple pie today recalls to me those priceless moments with Fay. (Sometimes she was called Fannie.)
There she stood — elegant even in her apron — with her hair done up and her make-up applied freshly for the day. Her belief, as she frequently imparted it to me, was “No matter how you feel, it’s important to put on a face for the world.”
During my early teens, I admit I thought her somewhat superficial because of her attention to appearance, but at the time I was an insufferable snob about people who didn’t quite live up to a rather purist value system I was in the process of developing.
I learned only much later how much she had suffered growing up in a Russian shtetl. She and her family were frequently terrorized by the Tzar’s Cossacks, who swept through the villages to attack Jews. My Grandma and her family would run away to hide in the potato fields.
Effusive, unconditional love
On the other side of the family was my Baubee Noma, my maternal grandmother, in whose kitchen I grew up. Of her, I recall no specific recipes, just an energetic older woman full of effusive and unconditional love. Bent over and always clad in a housedress and apron that were slightly disheveled, she thought little about how she looked.
She it was who taught me in Yiddish to laugh at life and balance priorities. When I spilled milk or broke a glass, she would say, “Zorg zich nisht aff dem klainair zochen! ” (Which liberally translated means, “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”)
From her and my Zaideh (grandfather) — who would give the grandchildren a formal “kish in kopp,” a peck on the forehead — I learned the most fundamental of blessings. When parting from each other, they would whisper to us: “Gai-gezundt, koom-gezundt un zie gezundt!” (Go in good health, come in good health and remain in good health.”) Having lost a child to pneumonia when she was but two, they knew the survival of the family depended on gezundt; there was no question about what the bottom line was for them.
When we celebrated the holidays at their home — including Thanksgiving — what thrilled me most was the way the small dining room filled up with their three sons, my uncles Morris, Dave and Izzy. Their booming male laughter expanded to fill the spaces around us with their exuberance. Something about their laughter, mixed with their undisguised love for Baubee and Zaidee, seemed to weave a net of safety around our entire family.
Of course, my Dad was among them, bonding deeply with his brothers-in-law, and their easy joking and camaraderie became infectious and mixed somehow with the trappings of an altogether Jewish-style Thanksgiving.
With my uncles came their respective wives and children — my aunts and cousins. The aunties were Frances, Topsy and Ruthie. When I was a toddler, most of my cousins were yet unborn. However, there was Roy, who surprised me once by saying, “I knew you before you knew yourself.” Eight to ten years my senior, he has always felt like a big brother to me.
With Uncle Morris and Auntie Frances came their two collies — Junior and Lollie who would come rushing in with their huge tails swishing in a circle of confusion that almost toppled me but that had everyone else, including Baubee and Zaidee, laughing.
How we all fit around their claw-foot table amazes me, for in my mind’s eye it is quite small. However, there must have been leaves with which to expand it, just as there was an uncontained expansiveness in Baubee’s nature that would always make room for ‘one more.’
The table itself was not really what you’d call charming; it was old, unvarnished and somewhat dilapidated, but no one cared. Baubee covered it with a white cloth and it was the catalyst that drew us all to her and our Zaidee. From her kitchen floated the scents of all kinds of wonderful dishes that we learned to anticipate with great relish. My Mom was of course always scurrying around to help her mother bring the unforgettable repast to the table.
Thanksgiving with a Yiddish flavor
Baubee didn’t serve turkey; rather the main dish was roasted chicken, which followed courses of gefilte fish or chopped liver, chicken soup with knaidlech (dumplings), with sides of knishes (meat-stuffed pastry) and tsimmes (cooked carrots and prunes) and any other number of dishes that Baubee had whipped up. Often there were Zaidee’s homemade pickles or pickled tomatoes. The meal always began with a blessing on the bread — usually a freshly baked challah or rye from the bakery round the corner.
As to dessert, Baubee made irresistible cinnamon buns. They would come out of the oven on long cookie sheets like an accordion of dough with gobs of melted cinnamon and sugar filling up the folds.
When it comes to “remembrance of (tasty) things past,” Proust’s madeleine just doesn’t cut it next to my Baubee’s culinary mnemonic devices.
The fact that her menu repeated those of other holiday meals upset none of us — repetition was good. It created a kind of delicious continuity and with every mouthful we swallowed we crafted moments of emotional comfort to embed on some hidden level of our consciousness. Some of these (like the cinnamon buns) are still concealed beneath the layers of the lives we continue to lead. Though without the immediate presence of old loved ones, we create new memories with those who now fill our days.
With the exception of apple pies, my grandparents’ culinary skills skipped right over me but into our children. However, Thanksgiving was an entirely different story. When the school I taught at began giving us the Wednesday before the holiday off, I was the most thrilled of mothers — and suddenly quite domestic!
I would say, “All I need is time and I can pull off a meal of many courses and several apple pies to boot!” And for many years, to the surprise of the family and myself, I did just that, though I admit with results never as magical as Baubee’s.
Now, we are invited to one of two Connecticut households of children who switch “doing Thanksgiving” in alternate years. Though we bring our willingness to help, by the time we arrive, we find that most of the trappings of the holiday are completed, and we gladly settle down at a table at which a new set of delectable memories is growing.
Weaving these together with our grandchildren — two teenage grandsons and our 9-year old twin granddaughters — they frequently thrill us by asking us to “Please, please, please move in.” I fill suddenly to the brim with tears, behind which stand generations of grandparents our grandchildren are hardly aware of.
“Listen up, kids! Do you want to hear a story of Great-Great Grandma Fay? She was sixteen years old and pregnant with Great-Grandpa Bob when she rode out on the old mare — against her mother-in-law’s wishes. She felt young and alive and the world was a beautiful place and she was going to ride into it. Nobody was going to tell her…”