Thanksgiving Day is the bipolar child of my holidays. I’ve had quiet Thanksgivings, raucous Thanksgivings, and Thanksgivings that have defied description as they were unfolding; Thanksgivings that continue to confound me years after they have passed. My in-laws’ Turkey Day celebrations fall into that latter category. But, I am nothing if not fair (and put upon by those in-laws). I feel compelled to briefly describe my own family’s Thanksgivings, to lay the foundation for an objective comparison.
My maternal grandfather, under whose roof I was raised, was born not in Italy, but in Boston. He was as all-American as baked beans. A staunch waver of the Stars and Stripes and a retired stevedore, this normally gentle giant was fully capable of decking anyone who uttered an ill word against the United States of America in his presence. Ergo, my family celebrated Thanksgiving in full American style. But for my aunt’s famous Italian-American stuffing, there wasn’t a hint of Italy’s rich, year-round harvest at our table. In my grandparents’ basement, a good twenty-five or so relatives gathered to partake of a feast reminiscent of the first Thanksgiving: turkey, yams, mashed potatoes, corn bread, mushrooms, gravy, string beans, and cranberry sauce, all washed down by apple pie, pumpkin pie, a little wine, and “brown coffee” (not espresso).
In adulthood, I was introduced to my now-husband’s family, who celebrated in an entirely different manner. Bear with me, read this through to the end, and you’ll see just how differently. In those days, before I was married, I was young and idealistic as well as stubborn. The first Thanksgiving spent with my future in-laws should have served as an omen of things to come.
Onto the table came what I will call the “anti-pasta” to what should have been the main course. This was not the traditional Italian platter of delicious marinated vegetables and slivers of luscious cured meats and ripened cheeses. No, this was enough lasagna and baked ziti to feed the entire Israeli Army, plus a heaping plate of meatballs, sausage, pork chops, and ribs cooked in gravy (tomato sauce rich with the meat drippings). To balance out this tottering food pyramid, artichokes also appeared at the table, and not the wonderful stuffed kind that my own family made year-round; these were simply swimming in greasy water.
One look at that groaning board and my heart sank. I’d been asked to bring stuffing to my boyfriend’s house, and I had. It wasn’t that uninventive cheap bread stuffing redolent of nasty sage and pulled from a plastic bag on a supermarket shelf. It was my aunt’s famous recipe, made from scratch and marrying chopped meat with seasoned rice, fresh parsley, sweet onions, an egg or two to bind it, pignoli (pine nuts) lightly toasted in olive oil, and a liberal sprinkling of fresh Locatelli cheese. For a young woman living on her own, it wasn’t cheap for me to make this dish. But it had been part of my Thanksgiving tradition since childhood. Besides, my family had always fought over the leftovers.
My future mother-in-law must have seen my face, for she soothed me with, “Don’t worry, Karen; the turkey will be served an hour or so after the pasta and meatballs, et cetera; we’ll have your stuffing then.” An hour or so afterward? I cringed mentally, steeling myself for a stomach pumping at the closest ER. Sure enough, just as the macaroni et al was beginning to work it’s way back up my gullet, the turkey appeared, with great pomp and circumstance, on an enormous covered platter. Once the domed cover was whisked away, the bird was revealed in all its vainglorious splendor.
It was slightly larger than a Cornish game hen.
“Christ on a crutch!” one of my future uncles-in-law blasphemed, and for good reason. The man was of Polish descent and knew a worthy bird and trimmings when he saw one. “Maria, you said you were getting a bigger bird this year!”
“I did,” my mother-in-law sniffed. “This one is six pounds. Last year’s was four.”
“Is that thing even legal?” I piped up, earning black looks from everyone but Uncle Bob, who’d asked if my mother-in-law had a permit to take a critter so undersized.
“No one in this family likes turkey, Bob, and you know it!” my future mother-in-law accused. “You’ve been in this family for thirty years!” “Don’t remind me!” he groused, fixing me with a surreptitious look. I swear he muttered, “Run now, Karen,” sotto voce. “I’m goin’,” I mumbled back, “… to get the stuffing.”
The family then dug in to the underage bird and my lovingly prepared stuffing, which had always wowed my own family. Utterings of “crap,” “shit,” “damn,” and worse wafted over the meatball-scented air. “What?!?” I squeaked. “This family doesn’t eat pine seeds,” I was told by three of my future relatives. “Pine nuts,” I corrected, thinking, I see why not. You have enough nuts in this family tree already! “Yeah, we don’t like ‘em,” my future Uncle Tony declared with a cold stare aimed at me. All around the table, like baboons picking nits out of each other’s fur, people were sticking their hands into my beautiful stuffing, pulling out the pignoli!
“Next year, don’t put the pine seeds in here, ya got it?” I was admonished. Across the table, Uncle Bob shook his head almost imperceptibly. Don’t let there be a next year, he mouthed at me silently.
I gritted my teeth and refused to accept these insults. “If I am here next year,” I stated in no uncertain terms, “I will be including the pignoli as I do every year. It’s a tradition in my family. If you all don’t like it,” I finally thundered, “don’t eat it!” Too bad Uncle Bob forgot himself and clapped. To this day, his left ear is still slightly misshapen where his wife boxed it. For about ten minutes, an uneasy silence reigned, but I would not back down. Which is probably why I wasn’t invited to the private party that took place under my future aunt’s roof not long afterward.
After dinner, I’d been assigned the task of washing the dishes while the men gathered to holler at the TV and whatever hapless football team was losing. The other women carried the dishes into the kitchen, scraped them out, piled them up for me, made doggie bags for everyone, and Saran wrapped the leftovers. Through the rising steam of the hot water, I wasn’t immediately aware that I was suddenly alone in the kitchen.
Peaking around the corner into the dining room, I found that area as deserted as Chernobyl after its horrible nuclear disaster. In the living room, sans women, the men were whopping it up, giving the middle finger salute to the losing team and yelling things like, “My great Aunt Tillie can run a pass better than that and my Aunt Tillie is dead!“
Hurt and angered, I’ll be damned, I thought. The other women left me to do the rest of the dirty work while they went where?!? Aloud, I asked, “Anybody know where the other ladies are?” “They’re at my house,” Uncle Bob answered, feigning a punt at the TV. “Said they were gonna plan Sherri’s bridal shower to Vinnie. God help ‘er marryin’ into this clan. Go on over, Karen; ya know I live right around the corner. Here, take my key.”
When I hesitated, Uncle Bob shooed me away, advising me to take a break. Like an invited burglar, I stole into Uncle Bob’s and Aunt Rose’s house. Laughter hit me full in the face as I stepped into the foyer, full-on, screaming laughter, the kind that put a smile on my face even though I’d been insulted and abandoned by these inconsiderate people.
Quietly, I crept toward the sound of the merriment … coming from Bob’s and Rose’s living room. Eight woman, seven of them middle aged, and one of them elderly and minus her false teeth, were gathered on the sofa, love seat, and recliner, laughing so hard they could barely breathe. Tears rolled down their reddened cheeks. They were speaking Italian but with the strangled guffaws, the words were nearly indistinguishable. I thought I heard “sausage” and “squash” but wasn’t sure.
So merry was this scene that suddenly, the insults and abandonment were forgotten. I wanted in on the laughter. I wanted to be part of the fun. I hadn’t even glanced at the TV; I’d just assumed it was some VHS tape captured for eternity, displaying some family function or other where certain family members were doing what they seemed to do naturally — which was, make asses of themselves.
So involved in the tape, not one of the laughing women had even sensed my presence. As I swung my head to the TV, the blood froze in my veins.
There on the screen was a naked couple. The man was the most well-endowed human male I’d ever seen in my life, so endowed that I wondered for one wild moment if he’d been PhotoShopped … but this was years before PhotoShop had been invented! As I watched, dumbfounded, the stud well, gave it to that lucky lady on the screen. “Harder, harder!” screamed one of the women in the room in English, and shock, it was my 72-year-old future mother-in-law! “If my husband looked like that, I’d actually enjoy cooking and cleaning up his shit,” one of my future aunts allowed. “Me too!” the other ladies howled.
As I said, I was still young, idealist … and stupid. Without a word, I began to back out of the room. I wasn’t a prude, but I’d never seen such behavior from older women, married women, ever, and since I wasn’t yet one of the “inner circle” (not knowing that I would never really be), all I wanted was out. But walking backward, I bumped into a small, decorative table and knocked over a vase of pussy willows. As the vase bounced on the thick shag carpet, silence fell over the room. Every face that had been red with laughter was now red with shock and mortification. I didn’t say a word. Hell, I wouldn’t have known what to say!
And then the room exploded in curses — aimed at me. I was embarrassed as hell but also angry. They’d stuck me with the dishes, lied about planning poor Sherri’s shower, and were watching a blue movie starring the Stud of the Universe while their men-folk cussed up a happy storm over a tame football game! “You can’t say a word about this to our husbands!” they warned me, “not one single word, Karen, you promise!” These were threats, not supplications.
And then the light dawned. A shit-eatin’ grin spread itself over my face. “You ever leave me with all the dishes again, you ever insult my food again, I’m telling!” I countered back with an evil gleam in my eye.
“No, Karen, no, please, we won’t, we promise!!!”
But I left the shit-eatin’ grin there nonetheless, telling my future family, “You ever screw me again, I mean really screw me, and I’m spilling the beans!”
This story is completely true. I swear it on my dear departed grandparents’ heads. Now. If you’ve read the first three articles in my Managing the In-Laws series, you’ll know that I’m writing this series under an assumed name. Why make my life even more miserable than it is, being a part of this whacked out family!?!? But …
I am quickly approaching the point where I’m about to haul this little skeleton out of the closet. And if, by the time this article appears on the Write on New Jersey site, I should change my mind about using a pseudonym, there will not be a happy Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s under my in-laws’ roofs, and I mean any of my in-laws!
Some pundit once postulated that “Living well is the best revenge.” Baloney. Revenge is the best revenge!”