When the month of November appears on my calendar, and Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, images of my late Aunt Helen and Uncle Sidney’s Thanksgiving table warm my memory.
The Thanksgivings of my childhood were spent sitting around their formica kitchen table in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where our families sat shoulder to shoulder, squished together, and practically eating out of one another’s dishes of turkey and trimmings. And it did not matter where we lived, either, because Aunt Helen and my dad were not only brother and sister, they also were best friends. Being together, especially for Thanksgiving, was a given.
Whether it was Hartford, where I was born, and then Pittsburgh, where we moved later, my dad began the journey by trading his regular fedora for a traveling cap. Then we headed onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and made several Howard Johnson stops on the way. Years later, we also moved to Scranton, and the tradition continued, at the same kitchen table.
Aunt Helen and Uncle Sidney were the essence of scrappy Scrantonians.
They also were immigrants from Poland. My father and Helen sailed to Scranton with my Grandma Rose when they were children, before World War ll. Years before, my Grandpa Ben left Poland, where the family had experienced anti-Semitism, which they rarely spoke about at all. Ben arrived in Scranton, became a food peddler, and then set up a grocery store. Like many other immigrants at that time, when he was properly established, he sent money for the family to join him.
Sidney was a Holocaust survivor who came to Scranton after the war, and through sheer determination and hard work eventually developed a successful plastics business. Unlike my dad and Helen, who came to America as children and became fluent in English, Sidney never quite got the hang of it. Often reverting to Yiddish midsentence, he would cause his customers to smile blankly, in utter confusion, when he suddenly switched languages. That was never a hindrance to his success, however, because this “greeneh” (immigrant) also oozed charm, humor, and was a real “chevraman.” A real people person.
Although my aunt and uncle worked together and achieved a solid level of success in business, they preferred to live simply and unobtrusively. So we continued to sit together at the kitchen table every single holiday. It was the norm for us.
My aunt and uncle’s home became even more important to us when my parents separated, when I was 7 years old. Aunt Helen was the glue that kept our families intact throughout the following years.
My cousin Jeanie, their daughter, also known as “Gitty” from her formative Scranton days, remembers our Thanksgivings this way. “The food was the same every year: turkey, stuffing either with bread or potato, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes in orange juice. There was always so much food that we had leftovers for Shabbat.
“The thing that was so strange,” Jeanie continued, “was that they were immigrants, and my father was a survivor, and here we were celebrating this very American holiday.”
Undoubtedly there were so many incongruities. Not only was a combination of Yiddish and English spoken, but they also would lapse into Polish, sharing and laughing boisterously at some off-color jokes. We begged for translations, and they would say, “You can’t translate this.”
My sister Anita remembers the table conversations as being “pretty incoherent, but we had so much fun.” We were together, and that’s all that mattered.”
When my other older sister, Eve, wanted us to meet her soon-to-be fiancé, Maurice, she brought him over for Thanksgiving, where he also squished in with the rest of us at the table. “Thanksgivings were fun, and Aunt Helen made the best turkey,” Eve said. “She took a frozen can of orange juice and poured it over the turkey, cooking it for hours.”
At the end of our American feast, Sidney invariably turned to Helen and asked for a “gluz tea.” A glass of tea. It had to be in a glass, and never ever in a cup. Sidney would place a lump of sugar between his front teeth and sip the piping hot tea. As a child, I found this ritual fascinating, watching totally mesmerized, wondering how in the world he could possibly accomplish this feat without swallowing and choking on the sugar cube, or burning his fingers on the hot glass.
Then Dad and Sidney would go to the “front room” (living room) and take turns reading the Yiddish paper, the Forward, before falling asleep on the couch with their reading glasses still perched on their heads.
Beneath the surface, though, lay unhealed scars from their immigrant experiences. They were not easily visible, but the signs were there. Once when I asked my father if he would return to visit his home in Poland, he became agitated, and said, “You couldn’t pay me to go back there!” He clearly didn’t like talking about his childhood in Plinsk, and I never learned much about that time in his life. Instinctively, I stayed away from that minefield.
Recently, Jeanie related a story my aunt told her about some Polish officers barging into their home when Helen and my dad were young, demanding that my grandmother hand over her gold wedding band. Somehow, she managed to keep the band, and it now belongs to Jeanie.
And Sidney experienced continuous nightmares that haunted him for much of his life. On those days, Helen spoke in hushed tones. “Your uncle had another nightmare.” It was said as a warning to us, and perhaps to herself, to tread carefully, as if walking on eggshells, trying not to crack what was already so fragile.
Because they were a scrappy bunch, these scars were hidden at the Thanksgiving table. There was down-to-the kishkas laughter, good-natured banter and teasing, boisterous conversation, and so much good food cooked with heavy doses of love by my adorable Aunt Helen.
To this day, I’m grateful for having them in my life, and their memory is a sweet blessing.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist and freelance writer.