Our Annual Tradition: "The March Of The Wooden Soldiers"
When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of my Aunt Mary. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. we had a large family. No one liked to entertain a large group. I think we numbered about 12 at our lowest count and maybe as many as 16 at the highest. It never bothered my Aunt Mary. She always had Thanksgiving at her house. After watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television in our apartment, we would all go downstairs, to my aunt’s apartment, and start celebrating.
My aunt did all the shopping and cooking. She never complained about any of it. Not the getting up at 5:30 to stuff the oversized turkey and put it in the oven. Not setting up and serving two tables, one for kids and one for the adults. Not cooking two totally complete meals, one of pasta and meat sauce and the other a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. Italians do not consider it a holiday unless pasta and meatballs, our first entrée, is on the table. Then came the turkey. I tried not to eat too much pasta, I was saving all my room for the turkey, which I only got to eat once a year. I loved Aunt Mary’s turkey. It was delicious and I could hardly get enough of it. After the turkey, out came the fruit and nuts with a bunch of nutcrackers. All the while we were eating, the family skeletons of the past were paraded out of the closet. Who said this and who did that. I was recording it all in my memory and it wasn’t hard, the same stories came out year after year. Sometimes the adults would switch over to Italian so the kids couldn’t understand. However, I was bi-lingual and learned both Sicilian and English at the same time, and I was happy to translate the stories for my brother and cousins.
After the fruit and nuts, we took a short breather, to make room for coffee and dessert. The food seemed to never end. My aunt did not have a dish washer, but some how all the dishes got washed between courses. Then the smell of coffee filled the room and, to accompany the coffee, were the Italian pastries: canolis, sfogliatelles, napoleans, éclairs and cream puffs. I had my dessert and, by the last bite, I was sure I was going to burst because I was so full.
As fast as the food all appeared at the beginning of the meal, like magic it all disappeared. The table was set up for the adults to play cards. They all got their money and played poker while Aunt Mary, who didn’t care to play cards, entertained the kids. I remember her singing “Oh My Darling Clementine.” She tried to teach us to play cards for pennies. Then, as was always the tradition back then, “The March Of The Wooden Soldiers” was on television. The movie sort of marked the transition of Thanksgiving to Christmas. All of us kids got under the table and watched the movie. That is what made the holiday really complete for us.
The adults would play cards for hours. Too long for all the kids to stay awake after all the food and excitement. Aunt Mary would take us into the bedrooms and get us to lie down and rest. We were out cold in seconds. We stayed there until the card game broke up and our parents would take us back to our apartments and put us in our beds.
One year, when I was much older, my mother decided to have everyone over for Christmas dinner. I got together with my brother and one of my cousins; the other two cousins were Aunt Mary’s children so I didn‘t include them. We decided to get our Aunt Mary a gold bracelet with a card that expressed our gratitude and appreciation for all the holidays she had worked so hard to have for us. We gave her the gift box and card, which was totally unexpected and moved her to tears. I think we all realized, that if it hadn’t been for her, we would not have ever had the precious memories of celebrating Thanksgiving with all our closest family. Not only that, but she also always took on New Year’s Eve and she made sure there were hats, noise makers and lots of streamers and confetti for us at midnight.
My Aunt Mary has had poor health the last two years. She is in her eighties. The past couple of months she seems better than she was. We are going to visit her next Saturday. She loves company and she will have a full house. My daughters and I are preparing our “Family Tree” information for my cousin’s children. All the stories we heard repeated over and over years ago, plus ancestral charts of all our relatives and dates will all be in a binder for them. It’ll be our way of giving back the oral traditions and family history that were told to us as children. Now that they are old enough and interested in knowing all of it, it will mean a lot to them. I hope it’s going to be a very special visit for all of us. In many ways, these stories are the only way my children and my cousin’s children will have any way of knowing our aunts and uncles, and their great grandparents. I’m really excited about sharing all this information with them all.
I wish you all a very Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving!