Guest Post: Thanksgiving Transition, by Walter F. Curran
This week The POP Newsletter presents the writing of Walter F. Curran, who submitted this essay in response to the writing prompt “Thanksgiving.” Many thanks to Walter for sharing his writing with us.
Yeah, that’s right, transition, not tradition.
I am from South Boston, unavoidably, indelibly Irish. A few Lace Curtain types but mostly pig-shit Irish regularly ensconced on their corner pub thrones. A chronic forum for ridiculing the Lace Curtain Irish, claiming disdain but evincing envy. The Lace Curtains in turn behaved the same toward the Boston Brahmins. No one happy being themselves. Only the Irish!
Thanksgiving morning was spent at the South Boston–East Boston high school football game, immediately followed by the Southie–Eastie fights in the parking lot. Now that’s a tradition!
Generally, there were only bruises inflicted, rarely anything but fists used in the conflict, and if you got a bloody nose you had something to talk about after dinner. Never during dinner because Ma would “ask” you to not talk about it and Dad would give you “the look,” which was more than enough incentive to stifle yourself. Not much talking during dinner anyway. Everyone focused on the business of eating. When someone did talk, the others listened, almost never talking over one another. Not that anyone got especially enthralled by what you said, it just wasn’t done.
Growing up in South Boston, we had a typical blue-collar Thanksgiving meal. Turkey, potatoes, boiled onions, turkey, squash, peas, carrots, turkey, stuffing (always bread stuffing), and gravy. Did I mention we had turkey? Dad got the thigh (dark meat), which wasn’t a problem because everyone else liked the breast (white meat). The fact that there wasn’t enough of the white meat to go around meant that if you wanted seconds, a rare treat in our house, you ate the dark meat. Immediately ensuing came squash pie, apple pie, or blueberry pie with a dollop of whipped cream. Real whipped cream; aerosol cans didn’t exist back then. The reason dessert immediately followed the meal is that every meal was a race to the finish at our house. I can’t say that it personified an Irish Thanksgiving meal because I didn’t know what a real Irish meal was. It was definitely our tradition.
Southie was an Irish Catholic ghetto. A handful of other ethnicities, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Italians, but mostly Irish. Our unpaved dead-end alley, Pleasant Place, a misnomer if ever there was one, belied the Irishness theme. There were eight row homes, four on each side. Inside of those row homes lived twelve families. Baressi, Maccicci, Fiescanaro, Sulfaro, Rumsis, Tory, Micciti, Fisher, Hendricks, Antonnuci, Landry, and of course, the Currans. Pleasant Place – the United Nations of South Boston.
One of the Italians was Sicilian. I learned that you could call a Sicilian an Italian but you couldn’t call an Italian a Sicilian. The Italians didn’t respect the Sicilian. They’d say, “Lo stivale e calci Sicilia torna in Africa” and then laugh like hell. Rough translation: “The boot is kicking Sicily back to Africa.” I never saw the humor in it, all Italians to me, but they were pretty adamant about it. Nevertheless, if anyone from outside tried to bother the Sicilian everyone on the street would jump to his defense. As likely to say “ciao” as “good-by,” we didn’t think of it as “Italian.” That’s just the way it was.
Thanksgiving for other families could be anything other than turkey. I’m not sure what they were cooking, but the smells were entirely different. After dinner, always served at 2:00 p.m., every Curran would go their separate way. More often than not, I’d hang out with my friends Butchie and Donny and we’d tell each other blatant lies about the fights we got into at the game or other such grandiose things. We never contradicted one another. That would have been a reason for a real fight.
As I got older, into college, Thanksgiving sort of drifted away. Attendance at a military school ensured I had the duty watch a number of years and didn’t get home for Thanksgiving. Christmas either, for that matter. In college I met Marie, my first wife. I say that to irritate her because she’s been my first wife for 47 years. Marie is six weeks older than me (and infinitely more intelligent) and for those six weeks every year I refer to her as a “cradle robber.” I have been accused, rightly so, of not having a filter when I speak.
Marie hails from East Boston. As Italian as you can get and still be in America. The minute you exit the northbound Sumner Tunnel and take a hard right, you can smell the Pizza from Santarpio’s. You see the old-timers dunking biscotti into their anisette-laced espresso and watch the stereotypical nonnis scrubbing or sweeping the stoop and sidewalks in front of their row houses.
It was only after we got engaged that I spent a Thanksgiving at her house. Whereas in Southie, we sat down to dinner at 2:00 p.m., in Eastie, the day started with what is now referred to as brunch. 10:00 a.m. – here comes coffee and biscottis, maybe a shot of anisette or sambuca and a slice of ricotta cheese pie. They called the pie something else, phonetically it sounded like “pizza doza.” I have no idea how to spell it, but it was damn good. During that time, Marie’s uncles would wander in and out of the house on a social call. Never the aunts because they were at home doing the same thing for their families with their in-laws and neighbors dropping in.
1:00 p.m., Marie’s father, Armando, said, “Let’s go for a walk.” Armando and I hit it off right from the first time I met him. My dad died in my first year of college and Armando had started to fill the void.
I expected to walk around the neighborhood but he climbed in the car and we drove to Shay’s Beach at Orient Heights that overlooks the runways at Logan Airport. We walked together up and down the beach a couple of times talking, falling silent when a plane landing or taking off flew over us. Abruptly, he turned and said, “That’s enough.” We got back in the car and went home. Not a word was said in the car, either to or from the beach.
2:00 p.m., sitting at the table, the avalanche of food began. Escarole soup followed by pasta with gravy (sauce to an Irish boy), meatballs, sausage, pork, and braciola. Now officially sated, I surreptitiously loosened my belt. That’s when Marie told me that they would take a short break before having the turkey. I thought she was kidding. At his suggestion, I accompanied Armando out to the backyard where he proceeded to smoke a stogie, a small narrow flammable turd wrapped in paper that looked and smelled vile. I settled for a cigarette.
Entering the kitchen through the back, cellar steps, I stopped, aghast to see a full turkey dinner laid out on the table. I love turkey but it was a strain to keep eating. I didn’t dare refuse because I didn’t want to offend Marie’s mother, Rena. After all, it’s the first holiday spent together. I did notice that everyone else ate lightly and a quick clean-up afterward.
Another trip to the backyard for a smoke. When I returned, the uncles and some of the aunts had arrived and they were starting on the desserts. Other than a mince pie for Armando (I hate mince pie) I really don’t remember what they had, but it filled the table. This went on until 7:00 p.m., when one of the uncles announced in a booming voice, “I’m hungry.” Instantly everything that had been put away reappeared and the cycle started over. Still in food shock, I managed to nibble and nosh and loved every bite and every minute of it.
Through all the eating, everyone talked at once, loudly. They didn’t consider it talking over someone and nobody thought they were being rude, it’s just the way it was. I couldn’t follow most of the conversation. That’s when I discovered I wasn’t a multitasker.
For a few years afterward, Thanksgiving remained the same, eventually moving to our house in Saugus from Rena’s. After moving to Maryland, we were always the visitor, and it alternated from her mother’s to her sister Loraine’s place. Inevitably, the trip got to be too much trouble, and we had Thanksgiving in Maryland with occasional visits from Armando and Rena. Still a feast but on a scaled-down level.
A few years ago we had a grand crowd when we rented a huge house just outside Disney World and my kids and grandkids, Marie’s brother, sister, and their kids all celebrated Thanksgiving together. Other than antipasto, it was traditional turkey that we bought precooked with all the fixings at the local Giant supermarket. Everyone appreciated not having to cook or deal with leftovers. We were all mature enough to realize it wasn’t the ingestion of food but the congestion of friends and family that made it important.
This year we are doing a smaller version of the Disney World dinner at our house here in Delaware, a tradition continuing to transition.
–Walter F. Curran
Walt Curran is a retired maritime executive living in Ocean View, DE. A member of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild, he has self-published a book of poetry through Amazon, Slices of Life, Cerebral spasms of the soul and is in the final editing of his first novel, Young Mariner. EMAIL: wfcallc [at] gmail.com.