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!
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Member Comments About This Blog Post

    I had to read this twice, the love that comes through is so touching. Thank you so much for sharing.

    2341 days ago
  • BLUEJAY1969
    Okay I'm choked up now. What a heat felt holiday story! For me the holidays have become way too commercialized so we try to focus on family to the exclusion of everything else. Of course we have the meals and we get the little ones a gift or two but mainly we just count our blessings. Thank you for sharing something that is obviously close to your heart.
    2344 days ago
    I have to go call my Grandma. I was thinking "Wow, what a wonderful writer! I get a real sense of her values, of her deep love". I was raised in an Irish Catholic family as well, and remember the huge Thanksgivings with older family members bringing in some questionable dishes.

    But then I got to the part about the sardines! My grandma is Japanese, and she's always trolled Walgreens for sales- when I was closer to her, I received sardines, generic L'eggs (remember those?), chicken broth, and whatever else was 10, 000 for a dollar. emoticon

    Anyway, I laugh, but to my grandma, being able to go to a store and buy for your family- and so cheaply, is still a blessing to her. She remembers a time of little food, no abundance, and it still amazes her that she can do this now.

    Great blog!
    2344 days ago
    So maybe I shouldn't read blogs on SP first thing in the morning. Your sharing this morning tugged very, very hard, on my heart strings Lisa, the love just poured out of you and every word you shared about your father in-law spoke loud and clear that he loved his family immensely. The bond all of your family have seems so strong. Beautiful! He lived through some very difficult experiences, being a holocaust survivor and having lost many of his family members. So sad. I am truthfully lost for any other words Lisa, other than to say hold on to all the wonderful memories of your father in-law and keep his traditions alive. This truly was a story of love and affection. emoticon
    2345 days ago
    Wonderful! Food is often the part we first reminisce about when thinking of holidays. Second comes the family and for you it is reversed, as it should be for all of us. How terrific that he lived just down the street from you -- it gave him so many family activities to be part of which meant everything to him, and super memories for your kids.
    2347 days ago
    Wow. That was beautiful and brought tears to my eyes. I am so glad that you were able to be part of his wonderful, extended family. It sounds like you guys were super close and loving. Family is so important & I'm glad that you guys always celebrated it! My mother has always loved to host Thanksgiving and it is her absolute favorite holiday. I don't want to take it over b/c I hate to cook!!! But, I think it's great that you have taken over the reigns & I'm sure you do an amazing job.

    Thank you for sharing that glimpse into your family and life. It was truly beautiful.
    2347 days ago
    Oh my goodness, Lisa. What a beautiful blog! I loved reading this. It's such a fascinating story. All around us are people who suffered horrible deprivation and/or atrocities and then managed to go on to lead happy, productive lives. The resilience of the human heart is amazing. Usually we don't even know what these people have been through, except when we're fortunate enough to read something like this very moving blog. Your father-in-law sounds like such a treasure--great father (to raise his sons after the early loss of his wife), great father-in-law (to open his heart and let you in), great grandfather (to love your children so demonstratively)! I love the way you remember him--understanding that his generosity with food was an expression of the generosity of his spirit--and I know he has left your family a wonderful legacy of warmth and love. Thanks so much for this inspiring blog, so vivid and memorable!
    2347 days ago
    Thanks for sharing

    2347 days ago
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