Food, Family, and Feelings
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
I like the holidays. I did not always, but I have for most of my adult life. I host on Thanksgiving, and we used to do a huge Christmas Eve open house; now with my extended family scattered and most of our friends dividing their time with married kids and grandkids we just have our close friends over for dinner on Christmas Eve, and I host my family Christmas Day. I don't get crazy stressed like I used to, just enough stressed to get me moving to get it all done :)
I took over Thanksgiving when we bought our house, in 1988. My father-in-law always had done Thanksgiving, but it was getting to be way too much for him. He loved hosting it, and it was hard for him to pass the torch to me.
My father in law was a holocaust survivor. He was a 21 year old Jewish man living in Warsaw in 1939 when Hitler rolled across the border, and Poland fell before the week was over. He always said they built the ghetto around him; his family already lived in the Jewish section of Warsaw where the ghetto was erected. Perhaps I will write more of his story on here someday, I learned many things from him, and he from me...I was not the daughter in law of his dreams, with my Irish Catholic background and no intention of being any religion at all. We learned to love each other fiercely.
But tonight I am thinking about him and how much he loved having his American family over for Thanksgiving. He married my mother-in-law after being fixed up by a local matchmaker (there was no match.com, but they had their ways...) They had 3 boys in 2 years. Their youngest son is my husband, and when he turned 10 his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died when he was 12. She was one of 12 kids, Russian-Jews, some of whom had been born in Russia, and some (including her) here. All of her brothers had built businesses, except the 2nd oldest, who the others put through college and then Harvard Law School. They rallied around my father in law, and he always felt such a great debt of gratitude to them. He was so proud and happy to host them once a year.
He was a horrible, if enthusiastic, cook, and he made all of these Eastern European Jewish foods, as well as the Turkey and potatoes of a traditional American Thanksgiving. He cooked for days, making something called Simmus (with some sort of red meat cooked until it was shoe leather, and prunes), and all sorts of other foods (tongue is one I remember with a shudder) that I had never heard of and could not imagine voluntarily eating! Lots of them involved flour and water, which, as you may recall, is what kindergarten's make paste out of! It was heavy and to me it seemed tasteless, but my husband and his brothers and cousins loved those huge meals. Then they would all go play, touch football or a tag type game called "monster". My husband still plays Monster every thanksgiving with our kids and his cousins and their kids and a bunch of neighborhood kids.
My father in law continued to make all these foods after I took over hosting, leaving me to make the turkey and traditional trimmings, and since we have a few vegetarians in the extended family (and eventually my own daughter) I would also make a vegetarian entrée. Some years we had 30 people for dinner in my house, with tables stretching from the dining room through the living room. This year we will be only 13, and Morris passed away in 2001, so there has been no simmus or tongue for many years. (He made a wonderful chopped liver, but that was for other holidays, not Thanksgiving.) And he learned to bake, brownies and cakes, often from mixes but with a little twist, and of course my kids loved that.
He loved the buying of the food, the cooking, and the feeding. He loved to look around and see all those people around the tables. He loved my babies more than words can describe, he loved seeing this new generation. His family of origin all died at the hands of the Nazis; some went to the gas chambers, but most died of hunger. He himself was liberated from a camp and was one of the walking skeletons we see in the news reels of the time, when they documented the horrors they were discovering. He had Typhus and advanced starvation and an open infected wound from being struck by a guard's bayonet a few weeks before the camp was liberated. He would have succumbed in a few days if the camp had not been liberated when it was. And every once in awhile he seemed to stop and look around, at the family that he had found and who had found him, and revel for a moment in that. He was conscious until the day he died of the hunger he had known, and his cupboards were full to bursting with canned goods and extra flour and salt and sugar. He never came to my house without bringing food; and he lived down the street! He would bring something he baked, but sometimes he brought crazy things, sardines (they were on sale) or generic chicken broth (I saw you used broth when you make rice, so I picked you up some). I never wanted the things, but I took them, sometimes immediately donating them to the food bank, but I never let on.
Family. Food. How closely they are tied! And feelings. Morris was not a demonstrative man, except with my 2 kids; he was not demonstrative with my husband or his brothers; I heard him say I love you, but not often or easily. But he sure did bake it into a lot of foods!