It was dark. It was small. And the kitchen was noisy with the good-natured bantering of my mother and her two sisters.
The apartment of my maternal grandparents, Joseph and Gertrude Goldberg, was above their fruit store in North Philadelphia in the 1940s. It was a place that time — and sunshine — seemed to have forgotten.
Gertrude and Joseph regarded Thanksgiving with some suspicion. As Eastern European Jewish immigrants, they had never quite acclimated to American ways. So their mission was to keep that little fruit store open as long as possible on Thanksgiving Day because the customers were in a buying mood, clamoring for exotica like cranberries and squash.
When we finally gathered around the makeshift table, always rickety, always covered by a lace cloth with a few snags, it was not a Norman Rockwell portrait by any stretch. And the “toikey,” as grandmom called it, was a bit leathery.
In the cramped living room, not a chair was comfortable, and the sofa was permanently covered in a slipcover. I never knew what was underneath it. Yet, those Thanksgivings in that daunting space still return in dreams, and somehow, my unconscious has brightened those rooms.
After the Goldbergs were gone, my parents took over the holiday in our Wynnefield row house. There, the dining room table had leaves that my father would carry up from the basement the night before the holiday.
Again, no Norwellian portrait here.
The kitchen was straight out of bedlam throughout the meal. If memory serves me, there was not a single counter. The sink was tiny. There was one oven that seemed to take up most of the limited kitchen floor space. I often wonder, what my mother, a fabled cook, could have produced in one of today’s dream kitchens. She never had the chance.
Like so many women of my generation, I married young. I was out of the starting gate at the ripe old age of 21, wed 10 days after graduating from college.
We lived in a tiny Cape Cod in South Jersey. That house had the euphemistic “breakfast nook” but no dining room. No Thanksgivings there.
Babies came. Life was a blur of diapers, formula and exhaustion. Two homes later, when Mom was a widow, she turned over the holiday to me. It was rough sailing the first year, with an overcooked turkey and cranberry sauce that was like mush.
But oh, the feeling of setting the dining room table — in our case, a Victorian behemoth — and to have candles glowing on it. There was no blast of trumpets or drum roll, but that first Thanksgiving in our early 20th century Tudor house made me feel like a bonafide grown-up.
For years my husband and I did the endless shopping, schlepping, testing of recipes, dragging of table leaves up from the basement. We grumbled, but we were in our element.
Then came the noisy, glorious years of high chairs, boosters and the incredible cargo of babies. Another era: The children of our children were gathered around the holiday table.
That is, until the sale sign went up on our front lawn because it had grown eerily empty. We had the requisite yard sale, gave away the excess furniture and settled into a condominium with a dining room half the size of our former one.
It was only a matter of time until one of our daughters, the oldest, raised the question of our handing over Thanksgiving dinner to her. In an instant, I understood all of the implications of Jill’s request. Yes, the center of family gravity was shifting to a different house, this one in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. A lovely house, to be sure, but not ours.
I gave Jill the answer she wanted. But I felt that deep stab of regret that signals endings.
Over all these years, the circle has grown, and the guest list has swelled with other families, our daughters-in-law, once strangers, now mispachah.
And it has contracted with losses too painful to ever stop hurting.
But gather we will in Jill and Jeff’s dining room soon. Such a leap from a crowded apartment above a fruit store. And such a challenge as we try to patch in Chanukah with Thanksgiving — and wonder what would Grandmom Goldberg have to say about that.
And for me, no standing in endless supermarket check-out lines. No worrying about crispy versus soft stuffing.
Time marches on. It won’t wait for me. I just wonder why I’m feeling so bereft.