Thanksgiving memories: food, fat, futures … true love

Text and photos by Rosalie Tirella

When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, I could tell what kind of Thanksgiving Ma, my two kid sisters and I were gonna have as soon as Ma told us which of her sisters, my two favorite aunties, we’d be spending the holiday with. We were gonna have a great Thanksgiving if we were invited to Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s house in Worcester’s suburban Burncoat neighborhood. We were gonna have a gonzo holiday if we spent Thanksgiving with Auntie Gertrude and her family.

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Ma, left, and her big sister, Rose’s Auntie Gertrude – an experience!

This Thanksgiving it was to be Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s house:

Aunt Mary, married to elementary school principal Uncle Mark, had the perfect Post-World-War II, new suburban, white bread American life that I coveted – even as a five year old. After growing up poor, with Ma and her sisters and brother on Bigelow Street, in The Block, in Green Island, Aunt Mary hit the Jack Pot – wife, stay at home mom, middle-class ‘hood – the American Dream.

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Aunt Mary on her wedding day, with her Polish immigrant dad, Rose’s grandpa or “Jaju” (on that day, Father of the Bride).

But Aunt Mary was no princess. Like my mother and their big sister Gertrude, she had been farmed out by her parents, my Bapy and Jaju, during the Great Depression – to Springfield, to the Bishop of Springfield’s rectory, where she was a maid, cook and housekkeeper. She had a job!, made money to send home to Worcester to her parents so they could eat, pay their rent, survive the lean American times. And, just as important, Mary and her sisters were eating the best food and sleeping in a warm bedroom in 1929, ’30, ’31, 32… each sister sleeping in her own twin bed, in a big room in the Bishop’s house, with two great, fearless Dobermann pinschers snoozing at their feet, Bridgette and Rocky – both the brainchild of my Auntie Gert who loved the breed and fast-talked their doting Bishop into buying the pair of guard dogs for them. Rocky, Ma’s fave, would lick between her toes at night and howl while sitting next to the upright piano my Auntie Gert would bang away on, singing the popular tunes of the day.

My mother and aunts were 14, 15 and 19 years old, and they loved to walk and cuddle their babies, Rocky and Bridgette, who proved to be the neighborhood menaces, biting one guy, mowing down a nun and breaking her arm. But you know all about Bridgette and Rocky…

And you know how Ma and her sisters were sent to the Bishop’s to live and work as kids and how they stayed for 10 years, bonding for life.

But in this column it is the 1960s/ 1970s and Aunt Mary had done well for herself: she had married a school teacher, my Uncle Mark; and lived in an adorable, Baby-Boomer, kid friendly Worcester neighborhood; she had a cute ranch with big backyard for the kids, new GE appliances and a huge Electra parked in their garage. It was Gold. Plus, Aunt Mary had four fun, happy kids – my cousins – who were smart, silly, loved to play and joke around and, best of all, had the best, on-trend toys – toys that my two sisters and I could only dream about, toys you saw advertised on TV! – and NOT on the dusty shelves of White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street, like mine and my sisters’ toys – or my (real) violin that Ma rented for me and had pressured me into learning to play at Lamartine Street School …

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Rose still has the little “pitch pipe” that her mother bought for her when she took violin lessons, for free, at Lamartine Street School. She was just 6 years old and hated the violin!

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Today, this pitch pipe is always in Rose’s purse, always with her, a memento of her mother’s love of music – and her.

… toys like Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots!!, Easy Bake Oven!! and Mystery Date!! board game. On Thanksgiving, my kid sisters and I would get to play with ALL of these incredible toys!

On Thanksgiving day, late morning, Uncle Mark would drive up to our tenement on Lafayette Street in his big golden Electra and pick up Ma and us kids (we never had a car – we walked (mostly), bused and cabbed everywhere) and drive us to his/my auntie’s house in the pretty, safe part of town to eat a ton of tasty food, play all the cool games, boisterously, with our four cousins and, for Ma, a single working Ma who worked 60 hours a week for minimum wage at the dry cleaners down the street and never had a day off, the chance to sink her tired body, already slightly hunch-backed from all physical labor in her 30-something life, into a huge Lazy Boy and be served!! coffee and dessert by Aunt Mary, her work shoes off, her nylon-knee-highed-feet up luxuriantly on a puffy, poufy hassock. Queen for the day!

Uncle Mark was a big, hearty soul with thick, square shoulders that filled our front doorway when he visited us on Lafayette Street. He had thick, jet black hair that he styled with a slick pom. Polish, the son of poor immigrants struggling in Green Island, he seemed All American to me. Not at all from the Old Country. He spoke English like a professor would, he read books and Sports Illustrated; he went to church on Sundays; graduated from COLLEGE!!; played football at his alma mater, Fordham University, and almost -could have – become a pro football player! He loved watching all sports on TV, was so proud to live in America, bragged about going to college in the Bronx – New York City, enjoyed his Jesuit classes at college, playing football, being on a TEAM, and being super strong and athletic. A jock. And still, Uncle Mark was such a gentle giant! So full of warmth – always smooching his wife and hugging his kids, so opposite our father, “Daddy,” who never hugged us kids and never smooched Ma. In fact he made a habit of yelling at her: “DONKEY! FUCK NUT!! Simple as the day is long!” When he left our apartment, disappeared for months at a time, we were grateful. Every day was Thanksgiving!

Uncle Mark was a totally different sort, almost a new kind of man to me – and Ma. He had fallen head over cleats in love with my Aunt Mary and gave up his football dreams to move back to Worcester to marry her, raise a family with her, become a school teacher, and give her and his kids a house, car, safety … a cocker spaniel.

“HI, PEANUTS!” he’d yell to me and my sisters who were swimming in the back seat of that huge, brand new Electra. We were going to his house for Thanksgiving! Ma sat in the front with him, wearing her best polyester pants and cotton turtleneck she had bought at White’s Five and Ten. She also wore her red Elizabeth Arden lipstick – expensive and still a classic! – and turning around to look at her precious three little girls, smiled her perfect, white Pepsodent smile at us. We smiled back at our beautiful, happy-for-today mother!!

“HAPPY THANKSGIVING, UNCLE MARK!!” we’d yell back at our big uncle, giddy, silly at the sound of his booming, warm (and also a little silly) voice – and with anticipation of Aunt Mary’s excellent bread stuffing and gravy, the game of Pickle we’d play in his grassy, fall-leaf-covered front yard with our cousins after the meal, and the lying about, tummies bloated, all us kids sprawled out on the living room’s sky blue shag wall-to-wall carpeting, after all the food and playing outdoors … we kids playing a board game, Monopoly, and eating icecream cones – Hood half-gallon box of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla scooped into supermarket waffle cones – that Aunt Mary had made special for each of us and proudly bestowed on each of us, her chubby round body brushing up against us all as she made her way around her snug living room stuffed with kids, laughing, her breath smelling like Bell’s Seasoning.

How was it that my mother didn’t feel a little “funny” when Uncle Mark called me and my sisters “Peanuts”? Sure, it was a term of endearment. And the Peanuts comic strip was at the height of its popularity, with those classic Peanut holiday TV specials (Christmas, The Great Pumpkin/Halloween) still fresh and new and watched by millions of American families on Sunday night, on network TV.


Snoopy and Woodstock do Thanksgiving right!!!

And, yeah, my sisters and I were cute like the Peanuts characters and we had small Peanut-y voices. But, compared to our middle-class cousins in the suburbs who ate meat and mashed taters to their hearts’ content, drank gallons of milk every week – Uncle Mark’s kids – we were puny, runty – PEANUTS. My sisters, identical twins, had been born prematurely – around 3 pounds each. “You were the size of chickens” you’d buy at Supreme Market, Ma used to like to say to them. They were kept at the old Memorial Hospital on Bell Hill for a few months after they were born, in incubation tents, too fraile to go home. As little kids, they were fussy eaters and therefore skinny, their big knobby knees and stick arms a visual assault to my father and an excuse to abuse Ma. “Fuck nut!” he’s scream at her, red-faced. “Don’t you feed the kids!?”

Ma would reply: “Dr. Lawrence [our pedetrician] says they’re ok! They’re healthy!”

But looking at some old family photos today, writing this column, with my own two dogs at my feet …

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… I see my old man’s point: My sisters DO look bony in their cheap matching short outfits Ma had bought for them at The Mart. Being old school, Ma never tried to tailor meals to their tastes – or to mine. If we were hungry, we’d eat what was on our plates. An impoverished childhood had taught her that. Ma cooked basic, healthful Polish peasant food – cabbage soup, with bits of cheap, fatty beef. Turnip with butter. Kielbasa slices and bread with mustard. Boiled potatos and carrots – and cabbage. Tuna sandwiches and Campbell’s Tomato Soup to switch things up on Saturday night. Pigs knuckles for her and Bapy on the weekend, bought at the Polish market on Millbury Street. Latkes for breakfast on Sundays. My sisters pushed their Polish grub-laden plates away and ran into the living room to watch “Leave it to Beaver.” I wasn’t a fussy eater and, especially after Ma handed me a bottle of Hine’s ketchup so I could flavor up my meal, gobbled everything. Like a turkey. Always. Except the pigs knuckles, though I may have tried a nibble.

Today, I believe my sisters, so skinny and sensitive, stayed so skinny because they were so sensitive! They were traumatized by our abusive father screaming, red faced FUCK NUT at our sweet Ma in the middle of our kitchen every day. Sometimes even slapping her pretty cheek with his big rough junkman’s hand! Now I understand! My two sisters were too terrified to eat! Their little tummies were always in knots!

I hated my father and, when older, would have gone after him with a turkey carving knife, if he had laid a hand on Ma. Daddy knew this and, I believe, learned to stifle his worst instincts.

On the other side, my mother, like Uncle Mark, also had her prejudices around food/body image. As the years passed and the Thanksgivings rolled on, Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark grew … rolly polly. Fat. Ma would sometimes make fun of Uncle Mark – and Aunt Mary – back at our Green Island tenement. She would say: “Yes, your aunt sits at the sewing machine sewing up his pants – the seat of his pants! Over and over again! Ha! Stuck at home! With her allowance – a few dollars a week! She can’t work, make her own paycheck!”

Wow. I was only 10 but Ma was telling me, in her Ma code, that 1. being fat was a joke, and 2. being a housewife and stay at home mom was even a bigger joke! You were not free! You were not an independent woman! You were your husband’s servant and cheerleader. Ma would never be stuck at home, away from her beloved customers at the dry cleaners! “I love my job!” she used to say to me – often. “I love working with the public!” she would say to me – often. Almost as often as she told me the story about Aunt Mary sewing and resewing the ample seat of Uncle Mark’s pants!

And, so, like Ma, I never married. Was no man’s seamstress, handmaiden or cheerleader. The moral of Ma’s story always seemed to be about Freedom. Freedom to be the MAIN CHARACTER in your story. Not a bad feeling, unless I was imbuing the love that bloomed between Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark. Like in the fairy tales I’d read as a child. He called her “my Queen.” He called her “Angel.” On Thanksgiving Day, I remember always seeing Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark hugging, laughing together – FLIRTING! Over the kitchen stove. Next to their big color TV. In front of us kids. In front of Ma! Aunt Mary, an “old lady” to us kids, would actually blush, at my Uncle Mark’s deep, sweet coos and compliments. Once I heard her say to Ma: “I hope I die before him. He won’t know how to live without me.” She was right. 60 years later, she died of cancer. Uncle Mark sobbed for two months. That is all he did. We all had never seen him cry. Ever. He was a pillar of strength – the Fordham football hero who filled our Lafayette Street front entry with his bulk and vigor and self-confidence and good cheer. Then he died. Then he died. Skinny now, he had stopped eating.

So Ma got it. At the end. I got it at the end too … But my epiphany began years ago, one Christmas day, at Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s. I was 16 and maybe a bit anorexic. All A’s in school. A perfectionist. Now wanting the approval of boys…all so cute and out of reach … poring over my latest issues of Glamour, Seventeen and Mademoiselle to learn that I was different from the models cavorting with the cute boys on the beach on those glossy pages in their butter cup yellow bikinis: my hair was too thin but my body was not thin enough; my breasts were still too small, the gap between my two front teeth still gaping.

So that Christmas I was ashamed of my aunt and uncle. They were fat! And there they were, by their big fake Christmas tree in their living room, KISSING! Two fat people! How gross! They looked nothing like the models in my magazines or my favorite movie stars: Dianne Keaton, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Barbra Steisand, Faye Dunaway … And they were in THEIR FORTIES! kissing!! Hugging each other, slobbering over each other, practically in public!

Then they stopped.

Uncle Mark had an announcement: For Christmas he had bought Aunt Mary a John Denver album! It had THEIR song on it! And he was going to play it for us. We were all going to sit down and listen to the song when he put the lp on their stereo record player inside their big, mahogany console.

Groan… I was 14 1/2 and listening to cool stuff: Layla, the Beatles’s Abby Road and White Album … The black magic marker scrawl on my school’s girl bathroom stall was on point: CLAPTON IS GOD. Period.

My cousin, now 17, and quite the beauty, went to a private girls high school in the city where all the beautiful girls had cute botfriends (some in college!) and listened to/were in love with Jim Croce:

So there we all were: Ma, my sisters, my four cousins, all trapped. With John Denver. Uncle Mark took the new lp out of its pristine sleeve, gingerly put the record on the turntable (which I never saw him use) and found the song. Then he cranked up the volume!

My beautiful cousin was moved (“He’s her Prince Charming!” she whispered to me.), my boy cousins were respectful, Ma and my kid sisters and I were … uncomfortable. Life with our Daddy left no room for romance and sentiment. What was true love, after all??? What did we know any way?

The song played on… Aunt Mary walked over, emotional, red-faced, to Uncle Mark and nestled herself within his big bulk. They held each other tight, swayed back and forth…almost slow dancing…

A few years ago, I bought two John Denver lps – for Annie’s Song and some other John Denver tunes I am no longer ashamed to admit I like. I wanted to connect with my now dead uncle and auntie. I threw Annie’s Song on my turntable and listened intently and cried like a baby. I saw them both, my aunt and uncle, in their little Burncoat living room, next to their huge fake Christmas tree, dumpling shaped, hugging each other close. I saw the love in Uncle Mark’s soft brown eyes, misty with emotion, as he looked down at the top of his small wife’s head. I saw my aunt’s eyes, too: soft and brown also, misty, too. Yes, they were together. Both wearing those ’70s style matching fleece jogging outfits! Both grinning, ear lobe to ear lobe. Surrounded by their beloved family. Ensconced in love. That was all that mattered. “Togetherness!” my Uncle Mark would say loudly, like a declaration, in the middle of his kitchen. Yes! I saw it all! Remembered every note!