Most of the time we saw our aunts, uncles, cousins and various relations by marriage only at weddings, the occasional christening and, of course, at funerals. We were Irish after all. Relatives were spread out around the edges of the city, and probably not overly sociable anyway what with the many hot tempers and long memories. Certainly no one was known for their hostessing or cooking skills.
The exception to that edgy family dynamic was Thanksgiving, and that was due to my grandmother Elizabeth and her mandatory annual feast. She invited one and all whether they were speaking to each other or not, and she would not take no for an answer. She saw things a little differently, “I don’t suffer fools gladly”. End of discussion.
It didn’t really matter, because once the opinionated aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws got to Liz’s house you’d have thought they were all just one big, happy, lovestruck clan anyway. They even tossed a football around occassionally, fancying themselves like the Kennedys, attractive, vital, and willing to forgive. One thing they had in common was a sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. There was a lot of laughter.
My parents, brother, and I usually got to Grandma’s early since she was my mother’s mother and daughters were expected to help out. That was fine with me since it mean I could claim a spot on the stairs that lead from the front hallway to the second floor and peer through the bannisters to watch the other guests arrive. Grandma’s three sisters, Mary, Josephine, and Christine, could be counted on for a grand entrance, larger than life in their long, fur trimmed coats, louder than anyone else, and always laughing or crying or voicing an impassioned plea for forgiveness or bestowing absolution on someone for some offense. I thought they were giants, and I was terrified of them in a strangely enjoyable way. It was years before I realized they were average -size women whose histrionics heightened their stature along with the emotional temperature in Grandma’s narrow house. They were all married, yet they always swept in together, perhaps having left husbands and offspring behind to follow once the drama subsided.
As more people arrived, the noise level rose, the women fussed about in the dining room, and the men stationed themselves in the kitchen, drinks in hand, passing comment on every topic of the day. It was the perfect holiday set up for kids; no one paid any attention to us as we ran in and out, re- forming the alliances formed at our last family gathering probably months ago.
There glasses raised, of course. Every now and then one of the uncles would pause while refilling his glass and observe as my cousin Maureen and Iix clattered by, “Ah, that’s Kay’s girl, a lovely lass” or, “Will you look at Maureen there with all her freckles. Isn’t she a picture of her mother as a little one? ” But within seconds their attention swerved back to politics and sports. They seemed not to notice the little boys at all unless one stumbled into the kitchen with a bloody nose or skinned knee.
Seemingly hours later the twenty-pound turkey, sausage stuffing, gravy, potatoes, turnips, something green, maybe peas, rolls and cranberry sauce, nicely rounded just as it slid from the can, were set out in the small, crowded dining room. We, a mob of cousins aged three to thirteen, fought over and finally settled into our seats at the children’s table on the enclosed back porch, blessedly free of adult scrutiny.
I’m really not sure what exactly was so special about being together this way, in that year, but we were very happy. Maybe the memory is enhanced by the fact that it was the last time we were all together in that house, in that innocently affectionate way.
After many toasts to each other and to those no longer with us, after dishes were done, and the youngest began dozing off, the older children were rounded up and nudged through their thank you’s to Grandma and goodbyes to the cousins. Talk focused on likely traffic on the George Washington Bridge and a next gathering at Christmas. By 9 pm the house was silent and growing cool.
Grandma headed down the cellar stairs to put more coal in the furnace. I never heard the details, but she fell and broke her hip. We spent the next, I don’t know how long, it seemed like months but was probably weeks, visiting her in the hospital. A broken hip was a bigger deal back then before joint replacement surgery was routine, before patients were encouraged to move about, before hospital stays were greatly reduced.
Grandma never left the hospital; soon after Christmas she passed away–as did those fondly remembered Thanksgiving dinners.
We still saw each other, of course, at the weddings and funerals that mark the march of our lives, but no one stepped up to embrace the whole clan for the holiday dinners that offered such easy camraderie.
I’ve managed to recreate some of it by having Thanksgiving Days at our house with our three children and their spouses along with five grandchildren, my brother, sometimes other far flung relatives and always various friends. Much is different, of course, from the meal itself (vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free, and the daughter-in- law who can’t abide soup, any soup). Then there are the electronic devices seemingly on every surface, although I’m proud to say none are allowed at my holiday table. We play soccer not football after eating. Still, much remains the same–maybe most significantly the children’s simple joy in being allowed to run free with their cousins away from adult hovering to form their own childhood memories.