This Thankful Thanksgiving

That one particular Thanksgiving, our grandmothers went
berserk and came up with their outrageous and twisted plan
to have dinner together as they hadn’t done since they left
their parents’ home as girls getting married fifty or more
years earlier. After so many years of divided opinions, this
grand plan of theirs to have all of our extended families
together under one roof for one Thanksgiving dinner was the
first and only thing that all of them unanimously had ever
agreed on in their entire lives.

Naturally, the rest of us did not share their level of high
enthusiasm for the idea, at least initially. We had our doubts
and reservations about it all. There were more than just a few
good reasons that we felt this event should not occur. But just
the same, we held our tongues, laughed a hearty laugh,
indulged our grandmothers and went along for the
adventurous ride.

So you will have a scope of  how massive this gathering would
be, I tell you that my grandmother had a dozen other siblings,
three brothers and nine sisters. The thirteen of them had 53
children, 112 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Including the spouses of my grandmother’s siblings and a
few step children for those in their second marriages, the total
number of people at that Thanksgiving dinner rose to just
under 200 people.

It was early October that year when they first started talking
of and then building momentum about having this
Thanksgiving dinner together. However, privately I think a
few of them were designing this plan for some time before then
and wanted to have it all coordinated before any of us skeptics
were consulted. Originally, our grandmothers envisioned this
gathering to take place for a traditional Italian-Catholic
seafood Christmas Eve dinner that usually features 19 or so
different delicious varieties of fish and seafood-- but also the
dreaded salty buccala that never caught on in popularity with
any generation younger than my mother’s.

However magical and wonderful it would have been to have
this gathering in December, several grandchildren out of state
would not have been present on Christmas Eve. The dinner
was then bumped up to Thanksgiving so that each and every
living descendant of our grandmothers would be there.

These nine aging Italian women were extraordinary to say the
least. Yes, they got on our nerves sometimes when they were
sticklers for detail and dead set on perfection. They also tested
the patience of their adult children when they needed help due
to aging, just could not wait for help and ended up in the
emergency room for falling off a ladder or pulling a muscle
when trying to lift something too heavy alone.

Though our grandmothers sometimes frustrated us because
they were so darned stubborn and impatient, we were in awe
of each of them. Their impatience came from years of
independence. All of us cousins were close to our
grandmothers and practically grew up with them. Some of our
grandmothers were professionals and others were
homemakers who could have run the country blindfolded
without a Rolodex. They were the nicest church going ladies
who could appear naive, intelligent, witty, charming, business
savvy, street smart or whatever they needed to be. The bottom
line is that they didn’t give anyone any grief, and they
certainly did not take any from anyone.

Considering they were born and grew up in an era when
women just did not have the combinations of careers,
marriages and children, some of my grandmother’s sisters
who went off in the early 1940s as a group to college while
their children were in grade school and junior high, were
pioneers of sorts for married mothers and wives.

One of their funniest stories that they loved to tell was one I
heard for the third or fourth time around my grandmotherâ
€™s table when the Thanksgiving dinner was being planned.
Two of the sisters 40 years earlier appeared before the dean of
education to ask why they were denied admission to become
teachers, in spite of acing admissions testing and having
impeccable references from clergy, politicians and professors.
The married sisters asked in person again why married
women with children were automatically denied admission.

All of my grandmother’s sisters were so secretly ashamed
to be related to mob figures out east, but decided that the two
education major wannabes should use those relatives as
references in their new applications. Then they had their
youngest brother dress in a suit to drive them to the college
for their meeting with the dean of education.

The gun molls were allowed to enroll in college that day. They
still laughed 40 years later at how the dean always quickly
turned around to dart in the opposite direction if any of their
paths started to cross on campus and how quickly he initiated
writing letters of references for them as they came closer to
graduation to get hired by neighboring school districts.

The ones who were homemakers privately never fully
accepted that their working sisters were not always home,  yet
would defend their sisters’ right to have careers to
outsiders who raised their eyebrows over it. The sisters who
did not work helped the coeds out by sending over dinner or
helping their nieces and nephews with homework.
Nonetheless, the act of a few going to college created the first
division of the sisters  into two smaller cliques. It had been like
that all my life at least at any gathering. The homemakers to
this side and the working sisters to the other, by design of the
homemakers.

That first afternoon when I learned of the plans underway for
a massive Thanksgiving dinner, I watched the sisters around
my grandmother’s table taking notes and outlining each
other’s behind the scenes responsibilities. I just shook my
head at their imagination, humor and strategies for problem
solving.

This Thanksgiving dinner united them as perhaps only the
death of their mother did for short period a decade or so
earlier. They worked so well together as a team. The phone
rang constantly, as someone was always looking for one of
them. The long chord from the black wall phone reached all
around the table. About all I accomplished that day was
answering the phone and reaching it over to one of them.

My grandmother left the table once when a man called asking
me if that was the residence of a woman who once was a
midwife. It never occurred to me that she sometimes kept
babies born to women who did not want them until authorities
found adoptive parents for them. She sometimes received calls
from adults looking for their birth parents. In most cases, the
mother had already come to her wanting details of what
happened to her child. I saw my grandmother put the phone
down a few times while I lived with her and refer to a book she
kept in her bedroom locked up.

However, this particular day when the Thanksgiving dinner
was being planned, she did not have problems remembering
that man’s birth or his mother’s name. She wrote
down his phone number and told him his mother was the only
one who never gave her permission to give out her name or
whereabouts. However, my grandmother told him she
believed she could reunite him with his mother soon.

My grandmother was the oldest, and as a midwife delivered
many of the babies in their village from the 1920s for about
twenty years. The other sisters who worked were in teaching
or business. All of these sisters, regardless whether they
worked or managed their homes full time, were born a few
generations too soon.

When I graduated from college and lived with my
grandmother for several months, her sisters were part of my
everyday life there. They were all then in their 60s and 70s
and except for one, were still in fairly good health. They were
very funny ladies individually. But when they were together as
a group, it was amusing just to kick back and watch them as
you would a movie in the room. Their humor and wit were out
of this world and you just couldn’t lie to them without
them knowing the truth was all over your face.

When nobody was around, my grandmother and her sisters
smoked, swore, talked about their sex lives or lack of, wore
out the pages of dream books and made calls to their bookies
to play numbers that were listed by dream topic. Their
husbands never knew about their gambling winnings. When
my grandmother was hospitalized and received flowers from
two bookies, I pulled the cards off and hid them at her
request. The sisters helped keep the numbers racket afloat
and got angry when the bookies wanted to extend credit
rather than make a pay off.

The day that three of them went to successfully collect a
sizable amount from one such bookie was also one of their
favorite stories that was not shared with the extended family.
The afternoon that they planned the Thanksgiving dinner was
the first I had heard of that brave but foolish outing. One of
their sons who was a policeman showed his mom a new thing
out called a stun gun and he could never figure out why he
couldn’t find it later. They never used it, but had it in oneâ
€™s purse “just incaseâ€� the bookie didn’t pay them
off. How could he not? They knew of an affair he was having
with the magistrate’s secretary and so easily could his wife.


That money they got from him was used to put on a new roof
on their parents’ home where their youngest sister who
never married lived. She lived in the city for a while and
returned home to take care of their parents in the late 1950s.
She became a recluse. Once my great grandparents died, she
called my grandmother occasionally, but had little to do with
the majority of her other siblings unless one drove over to see
her. Nobody talked about it but just said that was her choice.
Most of their gambling winnings went to buy her things or to
a child or grandchild in need. Only once did the sisters spend
the money on themselves when they all went to New York City
for a couple days and took their youngest sister with them.

That they trusted me with their secrets was an honor in ways
since no child or other grandchild was the wiser. Before they
ended their meeting that afternoon, all was planned for the
Thanksgiving dinner except where it would be held and the
exact time.

The group also welcomed just two of the wives of three of their
brothers as two more sisters. The third brother had several
wives, all considerably younger than he. The sisters referred
to those wives of their youngest brother as Number 1, 2 or 3,
hardly ever by name. These sweet smiling grandmothers could
also be viscous when they wanted to be and could get away
with it -- because when they were sweet, they were
so sweet.

One of the beloved sister-in-laws arrived with the good news
that her church would rent its social hall for the dinner on
Thanksgiving. The trade off was that Aunt Mary agreed to
allow a few homeless people to eat dinner with us since the
priest had planned to feed them there.


“
That priest isn’t coming!� one of the sisters
exclaimed. My grandmother’s sisters did not like Aunt
Mary’s priest because he was not Italian and he had a
girlfriend and a few children to her. How could she confess
her sins to a sinner they asked her. They went off in Italian
about what a hypocrite he was. The four homeless people
certainly were welcome, though, and the sisters immediately
inquired whether the homeless people needed food or clothing
in the meantime.

The second to the youngest sister, Aunt Rose, was the hold out,
in respect to the twisted plan to have one large family
Thanksgiving dinner. I answered the phone when she called.

“What is wrong with my sisters? Do they know how much
work this is going to be? My sisters are afraid I’m going to
die, aren’t they?� she asked me. She was recently
diagnosed with breast cancer then.

“You? No, I don’t think that’s why they’re
doing this. They just want to get dressed up, for us to seat
them at a head table and then wait on them hand and foot as
they’ve waited on us all these years. The idea has grown
on me. I think it’s a good idea.� I told her.

But we all knew that is why they planned the extended family
dinner. Her diagnosis and poor prognosis caused them all to
consider their own mortality. My grandmother had started to
slow down.

Aunt Rose sighed and said she would be there and bring all
her kids and grandchildren instead of having them at her
house for dinner. She wasn’t really up to cooking for 20
people anyway. The requirement was that two or three cooks
from each original sibling’s extended family step up to
bat. I told her that I would do her cooking for her if her lazy
daughter-in-laws opted out. I knew that would make her laugh.

She still had two reservations. Two of the brothers had not
talked to one another for several years and one of their sisters,
the youngest, truly disliked all the rest. Were they
all invited,
Aunt Rose wanted to know? “Yes,� I said and laughed.
And were they
all coming? Yes.

Aunt Rose complained in Italian that this peaceful
Thanksgiving dinner no doubt would turn into a free for all
before it was over. Either the two brothers would argue or the
one sister would cause problems.

“That’s OK., one of the molls is probably still packing a
stun gun,� I told her.
..

Reluctant as she might have been, she laughed and said she
would love nothing better than to sit in a nice dress and eat
Thanksgiving dinner with her brothers and sisters as she had
done as a child. Aunt Rose said Thanksgiving was the only
sauceless holiday they celebrated and her parents looked
forward to that American holiday to celebrate how glad they
were they were here more than they did on July 4th. It was
the one day they were American Italians as opposed to Italian
Americans.

Count her in for the full baker’s dozen. From her I
learned then that the 10-year feud between the brothers
started when one ordered the wrong headstone for their
parents’ grave. Cherry blossom leaves were on the bronze
marker as opposed to the agreed upon dogwood leaves. They
got into a fist fight over
this?

“You’ve
got to be kidding!� I said to Aunt Rose. No,
she wasn’t. As for the one sister who hated the rest, Aunt
Rose said that only my grandmother seemed to know all of the
details and recommended I ask her.

“Aunt Mary’s coming,� I said to my grandmother as
I covered the phone.

“Damn straight she’s coming! Or we’ll go in and
carry her out of that house,� was my grandmother’s
answer to me. All the heads around her table that day shook
and nodded in agreement. And, yes, they would  have. I
returned to the phone call.

“Are you bringing that nice Irish boy you’re dating?â
€� Aunt Rose asked.
“No! And have him meet everyone at the same time...donâ
€™t think he could handle that,â€� I said.

“I want to meet him,� Aunt Rose said. “He seems like
a nice man. Did he get a haircut yet?� she asked me. No,
and anticipating her next question I added that his hair was
still longer than mine. She said a prayer in Italian.
My love life interested the sisters as no other grandchild’s
did. They all thought they had every right to know its every
detail. The truth be told; they were the nosiest bunch of
women to be found on this earth. My face used to get red from
their questions and often just from being taken so off guard at
what trash talk could come from these beautiful faces and
mouths that said the rosary daily.
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