My family, who are mostly Europeans of Polish origin, are very grateful for the day of getting together and honoring a centuries old feast. And because of their gratitude, and those of many others, the mood on this day always seems perfect.
For me, Thanksgiving begins later in the day when I’m going to my car for the drive over to my Uncle Ted Tomasek, for an enormous home cooked dinner.
It is at this moment when a renewed longing for a truly classic holiday enters my heart. Before leaving the house, I notice that lined up and down my street are parked unfamiliar cars from out of town, and relatives standing at their family’s doorstep dressed in their Sunday’s best. As a husband or wife open the door for their kin, waiting with hugs and kisses, you can almost catch the scent of home cooked turkeys filtering in the air.
While driving down the road to my uncle’s house, I see the main streets practically barren. Only a few last minute people seem to be out driving to their destinations. My attention becomes completely occupied by the splendid sight of the crisp November air dancing with the leaves, and the sun setting over the sky, retreating with a pastel orange-pink hue.
Finally, when I arrive at my uncle Ted’s block, the first sight again is a multitude of cars lined bumper to bumper down the street and driveways.
Getting closer, I even spot a few houses with Christmas lights decorated by the die-hard individuals who like to get an early start on things.
Finally, pulling up to my Uncle Ted’s, I smell turkey and hear the priceless sound of familiar laughs.
On this day Ted always has his door opened.
I’m almost certain that he does this to allow the person, when they walk down stairs, not only to be greeted by one, but by all. Before I even reach the basement floor, Ted immediately has his hand extended with a huge smile and warm wishes. As I’m about to wish him the same, Mary, his wife, is walking into the dining area with some appetizers, while at the same time turning her head toward me with a welcoming but busy smile. That gesture is usually all I get from her and that’s enough to make me feel welcome.
She has hosted the Thanksgiving dinner for almost two decades; her niceties are reserved for later. Until then, nobody goes near her or partakes in any of the preparations; she prides herself on being able to cook the most delicious meal west of Krakow, Poland.
Looking around all twenty some people, sitting and enjoying a few drinks and good conversation, I know what is expected of me. I greet each lady with three kisses, then off to the men for the anticipated firm handshake; so by the time I’m finished, my lips are numb and my hands are sore. Before even getting a chance to sit down, my cousin Chris, who over the years has been on a manly journey of making babies, calls me over to the bar for a shot of home-made Polish spiritus. While pouring the caramel-colored alcohol usually into four shot glasses, two for us and for two other immediately obliging cousins, we begin toasting to each other sto lat, na zdrowie, and wishing each other happiness. It is then to the task of holding our breath as 97 proof burns down our esophagus.
Then Ted calls everybody to find a seat, while at the same time setting up the mood for a thankful feast. The anticipation is over; the food is finally brought from the kitchen.
The soup is first. Mary has been making this delicious chicken barley soup since I could remember, and I never finish with just one bowl.
As I round off my second bowl, steaming plates of stuffing and turkey and sweet potatoes glazed in brown sugar along with Polish sausage, beef, two kinds of cabbage salad and cranberries, move around the table sliding down onto the everybody’s plates and quickly enough disappearing from them. But right before anything is even eaten two prayers are said, one in Polish and then one in English by my mother for my father and me, who can only understand about a third of it. The Polish prayer by my cousin Chris is never without a little humor added, contrary to my mother who is very serious, religious and predictable and her prayer is exactly the same year after year.
As we finish eating the button-busting dinner, small groups start forming. The bar begins to be surrounded mostly by the husbands, and myself who could go for another shot of that delicious home-made Vodka based on ‚spiritus’. Another group still surrounding the main dining table where my parents usually end up staying, are mingling with the rest of the parents.
Here at this table is where they begin uncovering the lost archives of thanksgiving pasts; arguing about what they argued about before, and then trying to remember who was right the year before. The third table consists mostly of the younger crowd who talk about sex, the best places to go on weekends, and how their newfound relationships are holding up. But it isn’t any of these tables that makes this night a special memory in my mind; it’s actually the chair that my Aunt Josephine sits on. Her ideas alone have historically brought my whole family together in a heated discussion about family, politics, and religion, but her stubborn fixated passion over the preceding idea drives the conversation to last into the midnight hours.
However the night never ends on this note. When all is said, and nobody wins, and the bottles have all been emptied of their spirits, everybody begins to sing „God Bless America”, and then „Sto lat”.
So ends once again another classic Thanksgiving.