For the next few minutes, as I speak of my family, imagine a boisterous scene from a Woody Allen movie— lots of food, fancy jewelry, dirty looks, sarcasm, laughter and angst. And as I talk about my husband’s family, imagine a Norman Rockwell painting— smiles, cooperation, team spirit and a nip of whiskey in the church hall that no one sees but everyone suspects.
Starting in the early 1980s, when Marty and I began our quarter-century of cohabitation (we got married 11 years later), every other year we joined the family members who crowded around the table at my grandparents’ house in Randallstown, where I grew up. The regular cast of characters included my parents and sister; my aunt and uncle and their two children; my aunt’s mother; and my grandparents.
My grandmother would hunch over the sink and stove for hours before the meal, until the time came to lead a parade of serving platters to the big wooden table crammed with chairs set so close to each other that the lefties would bang into the righties, and we could smell each other’s breath. My sister, a dental assistant and later a hygienist, knew all the secrets hidden in our mouths and was grateful that I sat next to Peepop (our grand-father), who still had most of his own teeth, with lots of his own food still stuck in them.
This physical closeness made it convenient for my aunt to smack her mother’s hand as it reached across the table for a second helping, and for my mother to start the whispered chain of dirty jokes around the table, as in a game of telephone. For the first few years, Marty, ever the political animal, decided Thanksgiving was a fine day to fast— his stand against the American embrace of conspicuous consumption— and my younger cousin, whom we suspected of having an eating disorder, seemed to fast at family gatherings for years—a remarkable testament to willpower, because, boy, could Grammy cook! At least my cousin would take some food and pretend. Marty would sit at the table with a glass of water and an empty plate.
My uncle would occasionally smile at a joke I told, but otherwise he said virtually nothing to me for more than two decades— ostensibly in response to something I had said to my grandmother when I was 11. My dad was the first to spill something on his shirt— and to get in a snit when someone noticed. And I was usually sullen—and a little torn between embarrassment over our family’s seeming dysfunction and my feeling that I was betraying them by being embarrassed.
My grandmother would look at our plates without asking, but we knew she wanted to know if the turkey was dry. It might have been, but my grandfather’s eyes would dare us to say anything negative; nothing Grammy made was ever dry because her toil and tears went into the mix. If you’re from any ethnic group, but especially a member of the tribe (Jews, to the uninitiated) you know that refusing a morsel of food is an affront. Soon, my husband and cousin learned, if you want to skip a meal, you’d best do it someplace else. After a couple of miserable dinners, Marty gave in and piled his plate high like a good soldier. About the same time, my cousin seemed to grow out of whatever kept her from swallowing dinner.
The foods were traditional— canned string beans (no Potato Stix— those are goyishe), homemade sweet potatoes with maple syrup and brown sugar (no marshmallows— also goyishe) and turkey (no ham— you guessed it). My grandmother’s chocolate pudding pie (literally chocolate pudding, with skin, in a pie crust) was the best of all the desserts— more decadent than those bubbling mountains o’ chocolate you get at chain restaurants. But it sat beside her incredible sour cream cake, moist brownies and mandel bread, all of which you had to eat, too. The Jewish grandmother’s dilemma came into play at this point. She wants you to love what she’s made, but not too much, because if you haven’t put on a few pounds yet, you will if you eat that. Tsk.
On alternate Thanksgivings, we joined those other Millers, Marty’s parents, in Salisbury, where so much of his mother’s family lived. Before long, their horde of West Virginians— direct descendants of the notorious Hatfields— had grown so huge they’d taken over the church hall in Quantico, Md. The bucolic setting is right out of a Thomas Hardy novel, with old tractors in vast fields and a tiny cemetery with broken tombstones like sparse teeth in a mouth.
Inside the church hall, the tables were laid out like a giant U— large enough to accommodate 70 people: aunts and uncles, cousins, spouses, babies and always a pocket-size dog or three yapping under the table. Marty’s cousins and aunts took great care setting up the garlands of orange, plastic leaves, pine and candle centerpieces and crepe paper turkeys over the plastic tablecloths.
The children ran around outside and inside, and the second-generation males floated between throwing a football and watching one on the TV in the back room. Pairs of young adults would disappear to smoke a joint behind a tractor, while the rest of the crowd found something to do in the kitchen. Right away, testing the ham became my job. The only ham I knew came from a Danish company and was pale pink and vacuum packed in the water it tasted like. But this ham— this was something altogether different that needed a thorough yearly investigation. It was a heavenly body basted in glistening sugar and honey. Since my discovery, I have eaten turkey only once.
Each year, the hall filled up with family members and guests— the kinds of people Jews are instructed to receive at Passover but don’t (you can’t just grab a stranger out of a soup line): students of Aunt Betty’s dance classes; the neighborhood doctor and her husband (a fine chef whose role grew to tending the turkey and ham); ex-wives; surprise children from forgotten relationships; families of boy- and girlfriends and spouses; and a few non-English speakers who must have been somebody’s neighbors or the families of young dancers. Often these folks just piled a plate high, tucked in and left with nods and smiles. Dinner was at 4 p.m., another odd gentile custom.
If there was ever any hostility in my husband’s extended family, it wasn’t apparent on Thanksgiving Day. I used to think it was the presence of outsiders, that these people were like the light in the refrigerator, behaving while company watched, then at each other’s throats when we closed the door on our way out, but it simply wasn’t true. Marty’s family always behaves this way. Even if you try to egg them on, as I have over the years (pssst… doesn’t Aunt So-and-So drive you nuts?), the response is always forgiving and gentle (“Oh, you know she means well”).
In the mid-1980s, my family’s Thanksgiving moved from my grandparents’ house to my parents’ house. The first year, my dad had broken his leg the day before and my mother was harried making her first-ever Thanksgiving for the entire family. There was yelling and cursing (more than usual). I even wrote a poem called, “mother killed herself because it was at our house this year.” She quickly tired of the ordeal. And since obligatory Jewish holiday dinners meant spending more time with my kinfolk than Marty’s, we decided to make Thanksgiving “downy ocean” an annual tradition.
Some members of my family defected and we’ve never looked back. My parents bring rolls. My sister makes what she calls the real stuffing. My grandparents, in the years they had left, joined us completely unburdened— no standing all day, no worries about dry birds, no secret comparisons of Grammy’s food and Mom’s. No tsk-ing at our refusal of any morsel of food.
At first, for my family, it was a cur-iosity— so many related people (non-Jews, to boot) in one room getting along! But I’m proud to say it has rubbed off on us. We are the light bulbs in the refrigerator, behaving in the presence of those West Virginians and their quirky hillbilly ways (cousins with whiskey in their apron pockets, returned runaway teens with new babies). We have come to expect that the cousin who got skinny last year will be fat again, and a formerly fat cousin will be skinny. And my whole family, despite our desire to lose, will be exactly as we were.
No doubt the dessert table has been both impetus and downfall. It typically holds three or four pumpkin pies, a couple pecan pies, cookies, Aunt Margaret’s chocolate fudge and whatever I bring— usually a carrot cake, a sugar-free cheesecake (my father is diabetic) and some chocolate pudding pies. It’s so full now that the pass-through is loaded with extras: the carrot cake shaped like a turkey, the ambrosia (goyishe, of course!), misshapen desserts that have met some strange fate and an odd ethnic specialty or two (not as good as cake).
Separately, our families seem worlds apart. But together, with my immediate family in tow— including my daughter, Serena; my sister’s husband, Rich, their two kids and a newly adopted Korean baby; and my parents— Thanksgiving is no longer a scene from “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and it’s no Rockwell painting. It’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It’s Pieter Breugel’s “Peasant’s Wedding.” Each year’s feast is colorful and delightful because of the people who make and eat the food— not to mention the dirty jokes. And seconds are encouraged.