It’s All a Matter of Perspective

by Robin Bonner

Besides Christmas, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love its fall-ness—the pumpkins, the apples, the squash, the crisp cold air, the bare trees, and the piles of leaves. It’s when I finally make peace with summer leaving and fall, then winter, coming. I have a favorite nubby red sweater (yeah, it’s getting worn) and nearly matching clog-like comfy shoes that I always end up wearing the day before, while prepping. You know—food shopping, putting the finishing touches on the cleaning (which I never actually finish), whipping up the pumpkin cheesecake and the fruit salad, humming “I will give thanks to Thee. . . . ”

I have found through the years that Thanksgiving is a matter of perspective, and this year was no exception.

A Jewish Thanksgiving
As a kid, we celebrated our Thanksgivings in northern NJ, with my mom’s adopted family, either at the Soldano’s (one sister’s) or the London’s (the other sister’s, my mom’s closest teenage friend). I was a teen myself before I realized we weren’t all related by blood. My mom lost her own mother when she was 11 and was sent from Provincetown MA to live with relatives in NJ. When that didn’t work out, she moved in with her best friend Louise Lind, sister Terry, and parents, Sam and Sarah. To us, as kids growing up, they were Aunt Louise, Aunt Terry, and Grandma and Grandpa Lind.

The Linds were Jewish and we were Catholic, but we never thought much about it. As we grew up, my family went to the bar and bat mitzvahs. When my cousin Scott had his, my mom and dad sat at Table 1 with Aunt Louise and Uncle Sig. My brother and I thought Bar/Bat Mitzvahs were amazing and certainly more exciting than Confirmation, which was a more low-key deal where only the immediate family had dinner out after Mass. We wanted to have one ourselves!

At some point, I learned my mom’s story and appreciated the Linds for taking her in, giving her a stable home life, and once my brother, sister, and I came along, treating us all like their grandchildren. And, when I was old enough to think about it, I was especially thankful on Thanksgiving, the only major holiday we could all celebrate together. Eventually, Uncle Roy passed away and Aunt Terry moved to Florida, then the Linds passed away, first Grandma, then Grandpa. That left Aunt Louise holding court for Thanksgiving (and Uncle Sig and family doing her bidding) in Fairlawn NJ. Aunt Louise reigned supreme over Thanksgiving for many years.

Those are the Thanksgivings I remember most vividly because they are the most recent. Once out on my own, married, and living in PA, I gathered my family together for the three-hour drive to Fair Lawn, braving the holiday traffic to get to my family's Thanksgiving celebration. I remember the chopped liver and egg, the stuffing “cannonballs,” the baked (fresh, not canned) sweet potatoes. We Gentiles had to come in and make mashed potatoes and gravy, though, because those recipes weren’t in the Londons’ repertoire. I remember the year Aunt Louise decided to add broccoli to the menu—she (barely) steamed it, together with a ton of garlic, then passed the massive bowl out onto the table. It traveled from hand to hand around the table as quickly as we could manage it, and, still full, made its way back into the kitchen. That was the first and last time Aunt Louise improvised on a vegetable recipe for Thanksgiving!

After dinner, with the pies, a huge bowl of fresh fruit salad—the likes of which I never saw elsewhere—and a side of freshly whipped cream always miraculously appeared on the table. And then there was the amazing platter (probably five pounds) of rugelach. For the uninitiated, rugelach are scrumptious rolled pastry-like cookies filled with either cinnamon and walnuts and raisins, or raspberry jam, or apricot jam, or a decadent sweet cream cheese concoction. One year, Aunt Louise bragged about finding “such a deal” on the rugelach at Sam’s Club. One bite was enough to convince me that we got the raw end of it. Later, I ventured to advise her, “Hey Aunt Louise, you don’t want to mess with the rugelach—stick with that nice Jewish bakery down the street.” And, she did.

The Holiday Evolves
Well, time marches on, and eventually Aunt Louise succumbed to her long battle with cancer (not long after my parents), and the core Thanksgiving traditions of my life ground to a halt. We spent at least one holiday at home, which I relished, never having done that (we live in an “over the river and through the woods” kind of locale), and celebrated several Thanksgivings with my cousin Scott and his family, enjoying his wife Lynsy’s excellent cooking and reminiscing about “the good old days” and Thanksgivings in Fair Lawn. Eventually, we decided to go to Gary’s mom’s house in Levittown PA for the Big Dinner.

Mom has always loved to cook up a storm—and turkey is her specialty. It was ironic that we were never there for the biggest turkey day of the year. So, around my own Thanksgiving traditions wound my husband’s. Upon marriage, it seems that the most entrenched family traditions take precedence, and in our family, with regard to Thanksgiving, those nonnegotiable practices fell on my side of the family because the day also served as the annual reunion of my mother’s relatives. Before meeting me, this nice Catholic girl, Gary had never sampled chopped liver and egg nor matzo ball soup (oh, did I neglect to mention the matzo ball soup?), but he was sport enough to go along with it all for many years. However, I can’t say he didn’t enjoy “coming home” to his mom’s big turkey dinner, the one he grew up with. The way I figure it, if she’s 83 years old and insists on cooking a turkey with all the trimmings for 10 to 15 people, then we should let her do it. What’s interesting is that Mom is a second-generation Greek-Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem. So, without meaning to, our family has been privy to the Thanksgiving traditions of two good, loving families from opposite sides of the global political spectrum.

Mom is a bit of a control freak about her holiday, though—she always has all the appetizers and sides “covered” and allows no outside help. And, she has a pumpkin pie recipe to die for. But, my daughter Sarah, now living and working in NYC, has tracked down a nice little old Jewish baker in Greenwich Village who is happy to sell her a couple of pounds of genuine rugelach to bring home for Thanksgiving. And, I’m happy to purchase a king’s ransom worth of out-of-season fruit to concoct the biggest fruit salad on the planet. Gary, for his part, early on in our marriage added his own signature to the festivities: an apple pie that he continues to perfect through the years. All of these offerings go with us down to Mom’s to bridge the gap between Thanksgivings past and present.

This year, the holiday took a strange turn for us, as, after hours of preparations for the big day, I found myself battling a stomach virus on Thanksgiving morning. The biggest gastronomical day of the year, and there I was unable to eat a thing or even to think about it! So, I sent Gary and Sarah along to Mom’s to join Gary’s sister and her family, and with them went the pumpkin cheesecake, apple pie, and massive fruit salad. (That rugelach wasn’t going anywhere.) And, I spent the day in bed, thankful that Mom was making the dinner and that 10 to 15 people weren't depending on me to serve them turkey in a few hours. More than that, I'm sure I'm the only person in America who can boast having lost four pounds that day. Thanksgiving: It’s all a matter of perspective.

Robin Bonner is Editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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