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Rolling With It

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal.  I wanted to help because the Center has been a  beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place  my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.

Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.

When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.

Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.

“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”

Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.

Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.

“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”

“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.

The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”

“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”

“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”

And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.

Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.

“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”

I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.

Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.

That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.

A Cardinal on a Pinecone

My father famously remarks every year that “Christmas is at our throats again.” He is not, categorically, a Little Ray of Sunshine, and for my whole life I have rolled my eyes when he says this, appeased him with fruitcake, and gone on about the business of making holiday magic.

This year, his genetic contribution is manifesting in me. It has been dark and rainy here, my mother is very ill, and there’s been a death in my extended family. My parents are not well enough to “make Christmas” any more, and for the first time, they have no tree, no decorations, and no Christmas village with its mirror lake hosting a tiny skating party. For the past few years I have “done” Christmas at their house and gone back in January to put it all away; this year they gently suggested that it was just too much for everybody, and that we should just not bother. My son, almost 15, is too old for the reading of Olive, The Other Reindeer, and actually forgot about the Advent box I have filled for him every year with tiny treats of money, candy and toys. I have, sometimes, a feeling that everything that Christmas should be is evading me, and I resent it.

I realized, yesterday, that Christmas is only nine days away and we still have no tree, I have baked no cookies, and I have not seen a single “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “White Christmas” or (my personal favorite) “Love, Actually.” The long window box that hangs from our porch is not, as it usually is by now, filled with an assortment of pine boughs, holly and mistletoe. I have bought gifts, but they aren’t wrapped, and I can’t seem to get myself excited about the usual ritual of putting on a Christmas CD, making myself a cup of hot chocolate with a candy cane in it, and blazing through piles of gifts, ribbon and paper with bits of Scotch tape stuck to the back of my hand. We have lights up because my husband is a better person than I am, and he somehow understood that it would be too unbearably sad not to have the tiny white lights wound around our porch columns to brighten the long, winter nights.

Desperate to find some holiday spirit, I noticed several mostly-empty jars of peanut butter in the pantry, and thought about my father making pine cone feeders for the birds. He is 85 now, and it’s too hard for him to maintain his traditional routine of putting out seed, suet cakes and other delights for the birds, but he trained me well. The peanut butter triggered a memory of sitting at the kitchen table in childhood, spreading peanut butter onto pine cones, rolling them in seed and hanging them like small Christmas gifts for the Cardinals, Bluejays, Grosbeaks and Tufted Titmice. We knew that the squirrels would find a way to get their fat, fluffy bodies onto the slenderest of filaments in order to steal a snack, and nobody much minded – squirrels have to eat, too.

And so, although I had a list of things that really needed doing, I went to hunt for pine cones in the woods near my parents’ house. While I was there, I clipped some holly for the window box. Later, we bought a Christmas tree and carried the boxes of ornaments and stockings down from the attic. After the groceries were bought and stored, the laundry was humming, and my husband and son had started the annual business of adjusting the tree in its stand so that it pointed towards the ceiling rather than the North wall, I assembled my pine cones, the peanut butter jars, a knife and a bag of tiny seeds. Channeling my childhood self, I began to spread the nubbly shapes with peanut butter and roll them in seed, imagining the delight of some tiny feathered creature as he discovered one last beak-full of food tucked between the little shingles. Humming something, which turned out to be “Silent Night,” I found some yarn in my craft stash, and went into the cold, dark night to hang them from trees near our ground floor windows.

As I sat writing at my desk this morning, a flash of brightest red caught my eye. I looked up, and outside my window was a Cardinal, regal in his red cap with its jaunty feather even as he tried to hold on to the pine cone and eat his fill of nut butter and seeds. That lovely, red bird against the stark background of bare trees and gray sky was, for me, a miracle. In that moment, before he flew off to his family, I felt the warmth of connection to my father the bird lover, myself as a child, and the possibility of tiny, startling and beautiful occurrences that give us hope.

This Christmas is different, my family is changing, and nothing can stay the same forever. There is always beauty in the world, though, and it doesn’t come from the mall or from frantic human merry-making. It is always available, given graciously and freely by the natural world around us in the graceful arc of birch branches under snow, or the great silver coin of a full moon suspended in the winter sky. The natural world is always in flux; even as I admire a crystalline icicle there are miniscule seeds growing beneath the cold, damp earth. I have been trying desperately to hang on to seasons past, but the truth is that everything changes.

Sometimes, if we hustle, budget, strive, and calculate we can create a holiday that looks like it should, from the perfect tree in the front window to the ancestral bowl of figgy pudding after the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. If we are blessed with material wealth, we might even be able to give our loved ones everything they want in boxes with bright ribbons. Sometimes, though, if we stop trying to make things happen as they should, we are given the gift of a Cardinal on a pine cone.

Dropping Balls and Dread

New Year’s Eve has just never been high on my list of holidays. It isn’t a proper holiday like July 4th or Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving, on which even though we may be celebrating based on an artificially contrived date (or a Pagan ritual) we are actually commemorating something. All we are recognizing on New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s day, for that matter, is the fact that humans created a calendar with an arbitrary number of days, after making up the whole “day” thing to begin with, and that after 365 or 366 of those artificial units of measure have passed, we start counting again. No signing, no dying, no rising, and no Pilgrims and Indians. It seems to me that celebrating New Year’s Eve is very much like celebrating crossing the state line into Indiana, or the fact that the Ramen noodles cook perfectly after 3 minutes. Why not have big parties celebrating the Winter Solstice, when something interesting and dramatic is actually happening in the physical world?

I would not object to the whole idea of New Year’s Eve were it not for the heavy expectations piled on top of this kind of random and contrived event. As a child, I was safe and happy on December 31st because my parents either hosted or attended some kind of party, and my brother and I enjoyed a festive evening with our Grammy Graham, eating contraband snacks, drinking sparkling cider and trying to stay up until the ball dropped. As a grown up and married person I am, again, in the safe harbor that comes with having a predictable date for the evening, and (best of all) knowing that we don’t have to do anything at all if we don’t want to; we can watch a “Cops” marathon, rent movies, order hot wings, or otherwise disport ourselves in an old and married manner. Sometimes, like tonight, we adjourn to the home of equally old and married people to drink a little, watch a talent show improvised by our children, and hug dear old friends at midnight after a conjugal kiss. All good.

In the valley between the rolling green peaks of childhood and my current situation lay the New Year’s Eve Danger Years, when I began to have panic attacks at the mere mention of the occasion some time around Thanksgiving. Would I have a date? Would I have somewhere to go? If I had a date, would it be good? What would I wear? What if I didn’t get asked to do anything? There was no sticking of heads in sand, either; every other radio ad was for a “bangin’ New Year’s Eve” party at some bar or another, and the paper had a full page of advertisements to lure people with cash and a passion for cheap champagne and rowdy crowds. Like Valentine’s Day (which I should hate just as much, but do not because I like hearts and pink stuff), New Year’s Eve became a giant, perpetual reminder that one should be doing something much better than she would be doing on any other December night, and that everyone else would be lounging lasciviously at the Hottest Party Ever with a drink in one hand and a bulging bicep in the other.

Here is a random sampling of what happened instead:

1978: A sophomore in high school, invited to spend the evening at the home of Guy I Really Liked. We made Chicken Marsala and watched TV. I had spent ages getting ready, imagining what might happen, hoping that he’d kiss me at midnight. He did not. Crushing disappointment entirely eclipsed pretty amusing evening.

1982: Invited to go out to a party at a bar by current but ambivalent boyfriend. Bought dress, tiny handbag and monstrous stilettos. I looked good, he looked good. Smoky, noisy, icky party with people throwing up in the bathrooms. Too much drinking. Back to my (parents’) house where I did get kissed, after which he threw up and passed out.

1985: House sitting at house that seemed perfect for sizzling rendezvous with current boyfriend. Cooked up a storm, bought champagne, dressed seductively. I made stuffed mushroom caps, for God’s sakes. Boyfriend (who had told me he loved stuffed mushroom caps) arrived un-hungry because he had “eaten at work.” Hated champagne. Started watching college football games, which he did until they were all over, during which time I worked myself up to the giant fight that occupied our time from 11:00 into the wee hours of the morning.

1987, 1988, 1999: Studying for law school exams which started bright and early the first week day after New Year’s Day. Studying with guy from New Year’s Eve 1982, still ambivalent, still no kiss at midnight.

1990, 1991: Alone in my apartment in Boston? Talking to the stranger who called me by mistake, really liked my voice and kept calling back to see if I’d have phone sex? So sad I buried it.

1992, 1993, 1994: Probably with my parents, or possibly taping the labels back into library books.

So you see. You see. It never worked out quite right, it was never all it was cracked up to be. I’m not all that bitter any more, just sort of sad that I wasted all that time and energy trying to make my life mesh with a reality that was…unreal.

The best New Year’s Eve ever? In 1996 I was pregnant, and on bed rest in the hospital where I had been since November 22. My husband (well, he wasn’t, yet, but only because my plans for a cute, empire-gowned wedding had been ruined by the fact that I was living in a bed with rails for the foreseeable future) brought takeout Chinese and we borrowed a video player from the Gray Ladies so we could watch movies. I was not allowed to get up and take a shower at that particular juncture, and I was wearing a nightgown. There was no perfume, no makeup, no heels, no glamour, no drinking, no party hats, no bands, just a couple waiting for a baby under rather stressful circumstances, having a great evening together ( interrupted occasionally by nurses with pills or blood pressure cuffs). Six days later, we were parents, and that, dear reader, is something to celebrate.

I will not wish for you magnums of champagne, high expectations or reams of resolutions. Instead, I hope that you observe the passing of a pretty ordinary winter’s night with peace and equanimity, enjoying the companionship of family or friends if there’s a celebration to be had, or a good meal and a good book if there isn’t. It’s just another night, really, a man-made benchmark that means nothing cosmic unless we choose to buy into the hype. Nothing is any different tomorrow unless we make it so, and that choice is, to me, vastly more interesting than what anyone does tonight.


I am not, by any means, a curmudgeon. I remember many totally enchanted Christmases, particularly my ninth. My parents’ friend Mr. Hammond had, a week before Christmas, delivered to me a hand-crafted, very simple dollhouse. It was one story, and roofless, but for a child who had previously named and played with families of marbles and buttons, it offered endless possibilities. Mr. Hammond also gave me a vial of gold glitter, and instructed me to sprinkle it onto the dollhouse every night and say “Wiffle Dust, Wiffle Dust, make this dollhouse grow!” Although I was old enough to be skeptical, I was still highly susceptible to all things magical. I wanted to believe. Every night up to and including Christmas Eve, I sprinkled the glitter, incanted the appropriate words, and went to bed.

On Christmas morning, in place of the small house was a three-story Victorian dollhouse made by my father. It had brick detailing etched on the dark red exterior walls, shingles on the roof, and trim on the windows. My grandmother had made curtains for every room; bright cotton for the kitchen, red satin for the library, and pink dimity for the childrens’ room. She had also made bedding for all of the beds, and a braided oval rug for the attic floor. The house was full of furniture, all purchased in England the previous summer – a brass bed for the master bedroom, a piano with a music box in it for the living room, and a full set of dishes, silverware, glasses, pots and pans. A chandelier hung from the dining room ceiling. The house came complete with a proper English family, although by the time their coiffures had been destroyed by attempts at styling, and the patriarch had mysteriously lost his left foot, I preferred that the estate be inhabited by a collection of small toy animals who, along with the collection of my best friend Isabel, had marriages, divorces and rivalries worthy of “Dynasty.” I had been completely unaware of the construction or outfitting of the house, and while I now realize the amount of hard work and planning that went into such a gift, at the time, it was just…magic.

I also remember warmly the early Christmases of my own child. I have pictures of him beaming amidst a pile of discarded wrapping paper and ribbon, crawling beneath the tree, and discovering the rideable Jeep he received when he was three. He was too little to beg for anything, delighted with our choices, and constantly in genuine awe as a real tree was brought into the house, Santa was explained, and gifts appeared in his stocking on Christmas morning. Like my parents before me, I set out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, ate the cookies, and penned a note to Sam from Santa using my left hand to disguise my handwriting. (A hand mysteriously similar to those of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny). It is corny but true that the real magic of Christmas, apart from its tremendous significance for Christians, is the purely decanted joy of children, untainted by greed or cynicism.

This year, I am afflicted with S.A.D. (Seasonal Apathy Disorder). The seeds were planted years ago, when I spent several Christmas seasons working in retail establishments. Christmas music (particularly Mariah Carey singing “Santa Baby”) was played from open til close in a continuous and grating loop, and customers were stressed, impatient and often unkind. When I managed an elegant store in Boston’s Copley Place in the early 1990s, we were expected to wrap gifts in front of customers, using a complicated method of laying perfect rows of accordion-pleated white tissue under, around and over the purchased object. It made a beautiful presentation, but more than once a customer’s temper flared as he waited through this process, asking repeatedly why we couldn’t just “put it in a box.” My staff, particularly the dreamy and artistic Roxanne, would answer that we were “not allowed” to do such a thing, and continue to pleat and place at her own speed while the person across the counter grew increasingly belligerent and demanding. There was nothing either “silent” or “holy” about the conversations by the time I stepped in to defend our policy and attempt to defuse the escalating Wrapping War.

Given this rocky history, and the fact that I am no longer a child (even my child is no longer a child) it is no wonder that I have trouble getting into the Spirit of the Season. My dour view of the seasonal cash-grab is not enhanced by what is apparently called “Christmas Creep,” the practice of retail establishments to begin pushing Christmas merchandise earlier and earlier. Shortly before Halloween, on an unseasonably warm day, I walked into Target to pick up a prescription, only to be greeted by Christmas decorations. I like Christmas decorations, I really do, but there is a kind of naturally-unfolding anticipation that should take place during the fall. Long before discount tinsel is hanging from hooks, there should be time to enjoy the spookiness of Halloween, and the gratitude and family gatherings that mark Thanksgiving. I am not, and will never be a “Black Friday” shopper; I feel the same way about reducing Thanksgiving to The Day Before Shopping that I do about re-casting Veteran’s Day and President’s Day as days to buy cheap furniture.

I am particularly bothered by the extension of Christmas Cash Grab season this year, because it so clearly pits desperate retailers in a bad economy against families struggling in the same, dark waters. Although we are advised to teach our children not to nag for things, and to understand, in a general way, the realistic gift-giving limitations imposed by family circumstances, it’s a tough battle in the face of ads and store displays that begin, in October, to make all things seem possible. I cannot imagine having to explain to a small child that Santa will probably be less generous than he was last year, because a parent has lost a job. I am also haunted by the specter of families fighting to save their homes from foreclosure, or to pay medical bills, making the necessary decision to cut back on previous Christmas spending. It may be bad parenting to try to create a reasonably bountiful and joyous Christmas for one’s children. I think it is not, and that unless one has raised children in a firm regime of austere simplicity where the family has always given a donation to The Humane Society in place of personal gifts, it is terribly difficult to make the shift from the full-on Christmas seen in every store and television show to the budget Christmas that may be required by a pile of past-due bills.

I am not, frankly, in the mood to decorate the house, buy a tree, haul ornaments and angels and santas down from the attic, buy gifts or sing carols. For the past several years (mostly because of my own sentimentality) I have also trimmed and then taken down my parents’ Christmas tree, baked  their Christmas cookies, and decorated their house. I am having real trouble seeing past the presentation of “The Reason for the Season” not as the birth of Christ, but as a retail bonanza, and an endless source of work. About that: while some aspects of the celebration are undoubtedly Pagan, and the holiday has been commercialized to the point where it might appear completely secular to a Martian, “Christmas” is, by definition, recognition of Christ’s birth. Whether one is or is not a Christian, if Christmas is celebrated, its basic import should be acknowledged. My Jewish mother acknowledged it, and we were always perfectly clear about the fact that while she did not personally believe in the Christian religious tradition, we had family and friends that did (including her mother-in-law) and we were to respect and honor their beliefs. It would, I think, help to counteract the selling out of Christmas if we could all find something genuinely spiritual in the season, whether that “something” is religious faith or recognition that we are blessed to have the family and friends that surround us.

My sermon having concluded, I will confess that I am caught, at the moment, between my serious disenchantment with this whole Christmas thing, and the fact that others in my family, those of sunnier dispositions, will be anxious for decorations, cookies and mysteriously shaped packages. (Not under the tree because the dogs eat them). I have to do this thing, and, as my father says, “anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

I’m going to start slow. I am going to make a choice, right now, that no matter how many news stories I read about dwindling supplies of Scotch tape, or the projected unavailability of silver PS370s after November 28th, I will not begin Christmas until Thanksgiving has been thoroughly and graciously enjoyed. I will, instead of sweating the sending of cards, acknowledge that I have failed to send them for twelve straight years, and forget about the whole thing. I will use the money I would have spent on cards and stamps to buy food for the local Food Bank. I will shop when I want to, at small, local stores that are grateful for my business and have not spent their money on Assault Advertising. I will stop and savor the things that I really love about this time of year, from the first snowfall, to the intoxicating smell of our tree, unreproduceable by Glade’s best scientists. I will stop. When I am overwhelmed, overplanned, and slipping into panic, I will stop and try another day. Or not. No one ever died from having only one kind of Christmas cookie, or a tree from a tree lot instead of the idyllic tree farm in the woods with $3.00 cups of spiced cider.

If we are all together, healthy and able to relax expansively into a break from school and work, we will be fine. I will have to work at shutting out the ads, and take deep breaths when Martha Stewart attempts the Vulcan Mind Meld from her Connecticut farmhouse. If I can focus on relaxing, no, wait, that sounds wrong. If I can relax, and let things be as they are, maybe I can reclaim the joy of this season. It’s worth a try.

My Yiddeshe Thanksgivings

Until I was sixteen, Thanksgiving was spent at my maternal grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio. Often prefaced by a blizzard, and by my father worrying about making the five hour drive with 5% visibility and black ice on the Interstate, these holidays really began when we arrived, cold and tired, to find a House Full O’ Jews at 5105 Chestnut Street. We put our bags in our assigned bedrooms (I preferred the front bedroom, with its partially removed, politically incorrect and leering 1940s  Cleveland Indian stuck to the mirror), and found our way to the living room, where there was always chopped liver with crackers.

My grandmother’s chopped liver, a miracle never repeated in my lifetime, was smooth, addictive and so delicious that I could completely disregard the fact that it was made largely of chicken livers and rendered chicken fat, along with some egg and onion. If you have never had good chopped liver, I fully understand that you may find the idea repellant, and that you are possibly imagining liver and fried onions, raw liver, or some other equally unredeemable and noxious substance. This was not that; this was intoxicatingly rich, bore no resemblance to liver in its original state, and could have been classified by the DEA as Hungarian Crack. The fact that my brother and I loved it from the time we were small (notwithstanding the fact that we both hated liver) and would have eaten until we foundered, should give you an idea of its universal and supernatural appeal. Now, of course, no one has my grandmother’s  recipe and we are all doomed to wander the kosher delis of the universe, trying in vain to get just one more bite of what we can only have in our dreams. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, about “wandering jews,” but it’s just too easy).

The arrival snacks and Wednesday night dinner being only the warm-ups,  Thanksgiving day started early with turkey(s)  in the oven, and every surface in the kitchen covered with bowls, bags of potatoes, stand mixers, thawing bundt cakes and cans of chicken broth.  My two great aunts (the other two “Gabor Sisters”) were at their own homes in Youngstown and Warren,  packing up their contributions to the dinner, and then putting on beautiful suits, silky blouses, and Ferragamo shoes with a one-inch heel and a bow  before being driven to Ashtabula. (Neither of them ever drove, and they were astonished when I could not only drive a car, but fill it with gas into it without the assistance of my father or brother).

We were not a family that came to a holiday table “comfortable;” men wore suits and ties, women wore skirts or dresses, and I liked it that way, even though it was complicated to get ten people clean and dressed in a house with only one bathroom. When the group expanded to include my paternal grandmother, a petite and quiet Catholic woman of pure New England stock, she fit right in among the Hebrew Herd with her customary pleated plaid skirt and sweater set. Years later, I was first shocked, and then disappointed to find myself a Thanksgiving guest in a home where sweats and jeans were the order of the day.

My brother says that if you think of Barry Levinson’s “Avalon,” make the Jews Hungarian and Russian, rather than Polish, remove the heavy Eastern European accents, and situate them in Ohio instead of Baltimore, you have our Thanksgivings. With as many as 30 people in attendance some years, there were card tables added to the long table in the dining room, and run through the living room,  nearly to the front door. All of the tables were covered with starched white linen cloths, the china, silver and crystal were real, and the food seemed endless. There were always the American classics: turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, gravy and pie, but The Tribe cannot be limited to the pallid and the Puritanical. In addition to the Anglo classics, there was always a magyar culinary presence, including a kuchen or two filled with chopped nuts, cinnamon and sugar, and at least one noodle pudding (Dorothy’s without apricots, or Harriet’s, with). Any remaining Puritanical influences were obliterated by the noise level, the bursts of laughter, and the annual photographing of my mother’s fastidious, slender and elegant Aunt Anne captured mid-bite, one hand raised to ward off the camera. Squanto and company might have felt at home around our table, but I am fairly certain that Governor Bradford and his austere and God-fearing  colleagues would have run as fast as their buckled shoes would allow.

After dinner, there were hours spent just sitting at the table, talking, and picking at leftovers. When I was very young, my grandmother would pat the seat next to her, and I would sit with her sipping “kashi” (a tablespoon of coffee, a cup of cream and five spoons full of sugar) and listening to what was, actually, the oral history of my mother’s family. As my grandmother and her sisters ate “slivers” of the cakes and pies on the table (all three of them earnestly believed that 10 “slivers” added up to less caloric damage than one actual “slice”), I heard about Great Uncle Allen making the sandwich with peanut butter and petroleum jelly for my mother and uncle, about my paternal great-grandfather keeping kosher upstairs but cooking bacon for himself in the basement, and about kind-to-a-fault Sam, the other Great Grandfather who was a lawyer and represented the downtrodden in exchange for chickens and kindling. Eventually, the out of town relatives would pack up and leave in a cloud of Jungle Gardenia and hot pink lipstick kisses, and my grandmother would collapse on the couch as her housekeeper Mildred cleaned up the kitchen.

There was, of course, football on TV (although Jews do not, as a rule, play football, they do watch football), and over the course of the evening, dress clothes would be put away in favor of casual (and loose) clothing. Often, we would walk the short distance to Ashtabula’s main drag to watch the Thanksgiving Parade, including (in a cultural twist that made perfect sense in the context of my immediate family) the arrival of Santa in his sleigh.In later years, my father and I would take long walks after dinner, both of us quiet types who were a little jangled after the hours of sound, high-intensity interaction and rich food. We talked about all kinds of things on those walks, and for an adolescent girl there is no better thing than a private hour with an intelligent, attentive father in the cold air and solitude of a winter walk. We returned to the crowded house refreshed, calmed, and ready to rejoin the political arguments, the football watching, or the debate about what really happened to Frieda’s samovar.

Eventually, we would get hungry again and make a plate of whatever we liked best, arriving at and departing from the dining room table alone or in groups like some time-lapse documentary about The Life of a Table. Only my grandfather was exempt from the traditional post-potlatch culinary diaspora; my grandmother always made him a Nice Brisket Sandwich from some mysterious and never-ending source of perfectly cooked brisket. He was not a fan of turkey.

Those Thanksgivings were the celebrations of a family with real immigrants only a generation away from them, demonstrating their gratitude for this country in ways unimagined by the Pilgrims. They were big, warm and delicious celebrations  in every possible way, and there is not a Thanksgiving that I don’t remember those people, most of them gone, and that house, still standing but no longer open to me. Our group is much smaller these days, and the party has moved to my parents’ house; I am now the cook, and Rob has largely replaced Mildred as the clean-up crew. I’m thinking that this year we need a noodle pudding on the table, and to tell some of the old stories after dinner, so that Sam can learn them osmotically, as we did. I am thankful for all of those people, living and dead, who made me what I am, and who live on in vivid memory.  I think they’d all agree that a rugged band of Hungarians and Russians whose children and grandchildren have married every possible variety of Not Jewish can permit a little Chinese Ancestor Worship.

I take that back; they wouldn’t “all agree” about anything. It was against their religion.