Thanksgiving, always a happy time, has evolved in our family. When I was 10, Mom and Dad and my four sisters and two brothers, ranging in age from 1 to about 13, were all crowded into a small split level house with three bedrooms and one and a half baths. It was tight, but we made it work.
There was a standard menu for Thanksgiving Day — candied yams, onions in cream sauce, mashed potatoes so buttery they were yellow, green beans, and of course a massive, crispy-on-the outside turkey, plump with fragrant bread and raisin stuffing. The cranberry sauce was a gelatinous cylinder with ridges corresponding to the can from which it came.
Sometimes Uncle Howie from up the block would stop by before dinner, while his wife Dolores was busy in the kitchen at home. Howie owned a transmission repair shop and his fingers were permanently stained with grease. Dad would pour him a big double Scotch, and Howie would sit and sip it at the head of our dining room table.
“She threw me out again, Jimmy,” Howie laughed as he lit another one of the long menthol cigarettes he loved. “Can you believe it — I’m useless in the kitchen!”
That was the Thanksgiving drill pretty much through my graduation from high school: all of us at home, eating the same great Mom-made meal year after year. There was something comforting in the routine; the certainty of it all. It seemed like it would never change.
When I was in college, I had a steady girlfriend and so did my brother, so one or both of us had to stop by their parents’ house either before or after dinner. Sometimes I’d miss Howie’s visit, or skip dinner entirely. After dinner, if we could get away with it, Jim and I still poked our fingers into the carcass in the kitchen to find blobs of undiscovered stuffing, but the holiday routine was a little less predictable.
After college, when a few of us had gotten married and started having kids, Thanksgiving entered its next phase. Mom still made most of the food, but it was getting crowded in that little house, and her stove couldn’t handle all the side dishes. So we all started bringing sides, and desserts, and wine to help her out.
And, most importantly to Mom and Dad, we brought grandkids. To Mom’s and Dad’s delight, the cousins rolled around the living room, tickling and laughing (and crying and fighting too), while my brothers and sisters and I hung around all day eating and drinking together. This became our new immutable Thanksgiving routine.
But over time people started moving away, and some of the cousins got girlfriends or boyfriends whose parents had to be visited, and the roster of guests got spotty again. A number of us started having the holiday dinner at our own houses, to start our own family Thanksgiving tradition. So some years we were all together; others not. Howie no longer came by because he’d dropped dead of a stroke one Thanksgiving morning, right in his wife’s kitchen.
Then a few years later Dad got sick and died, and the holiday changed again. The first Thanksgiving after he’d passed, we all came together at the house, and it felt like a memorial dinner — more somber than festive. We kept that tradition up for a few years, and things got happy again. All of us brought the side dishes and wine and all the kids we could muster, helping Mom put together a dinner that looked a lot like the dinners we’d had before.
But a chunk of life had drained out of Mom, who was visibly older and less capable than when Dad was alive. And her dementia was setting in too, so cooking Thanksgiving dinner soon became impossible for her.
So we entered the itinerant phase of our family Thanksgiving dinner: one year we would host at our house for Mom and anyone else who cared to come; another year it was at the home of one of my other siblings. Most years we weren’t all together; we were just too scattered. The unchanging routine in Cresskill had given way to new unchanging routines we’d all established in our own homes.
Now a number of my brothers and sisters and I are becoming grandparents. Pretty soon we’ll be the doting older folks clapping in the background as the kids play, letting the younger generation do the heavy lifting of cooking and cleaning up the feast.
The unchanging routine is changing again.
Not one to ruffle feathers when faced with an impasse, I often defer. Whether it be a dispute that needs settling, a step-aside when navigating a pedestrian-heavy sidewalk, or where to go for dinner — I yield to the other guy.
So when I first approached an all-way stop sign that was installed at a tricky three-way suburban intersection that I use almost daily, I imagined that I could be stuck there indefinitely as I allowed car after car after car to take the expected “me-first!” approach. There’s nothing telling the driver what to do after the stop. There are no instructions; no green light. Nothing but a sanguine reliance on the credo that we all learned in kindergarten: take turns.
It could easily serve as a place to take it to the street — put your bully on. There could be a competing hot-rod revving of engines. Or an in-your-grill inching across the white line into the middle of the intersection to muscle into first place. Instead I’m often a partner in a rhythmic dance of nods to go, and smiles to thank. It has become a crossroad of civility in this seemingly less than civil, fast-forward, “get-out-of-my-way!”detached world, where many people don’t like to look up anymore, much less stop what they’re doing.
I’ve yet to see a mess-up. No middle fingers, honking horns, or near-misses. There have been times when two of us have approached at the same time. (The law states that the car that gets to the stop sign first, regardless of what direction it is going, has the right of way.) When I see it coming, I approach slowly, and prepare to be usurped, or to imply with a smile and a nod — “you first.” More often than not, though, I get an implied (or a wave out the window) “no, please — you first.” A sense of camaraderie swells within; a communal let’s-not-take-this-moment-to-the-gutter! We all can get along.
So I have found my own little corner of courtesy in a most unlikely place — a three-way intersection, where we are all veiled in steel and glass and can easily put our feet down, and be pushy — anonymously. Instead, it’s become a place to slow down, take pause, smile, nod, and be magnanimous; cordial. A chance to defer to the other guy. Perhaps, when we are not told what to do, we want to do the right thing.
To continue where we left off, Steve and I were boarding the night train to Bucharest. This served a dual purpose. We didn’t waste a day traveling, and we had a cheap place to sleep for the night, albeit I was a bit more rested than Steve when we pulled in to the Gara de Nord the following morning at 6:00. We had an hour to kill before we were again en route, this time to Brasov, our home base for four days. From there we could make day trips to the places of note in Transylvania: Count Dracula’s Castle in Bran, Peles Castle in Sinaia and the medieval fortress towns of Sighisoara and Sibiu.
We arrived on a cold, wet day, and checked into the Casa Rozelor, an apartment hotel located around the corner from the town square on a pedestrian street. The exterior bears the markings of its roots in the 15th century and the interior bears the markings of an upscale design firm. It was comfortable and convenient. A plate of ham, cheese and salami would appear every night in the refrigerator so that we could make sandwiches for breakfast. That, and a bottle of beer was a perfect way to start the day.
One really only needs a day to see the highlights of Brasov, but having additional time to wander allows its beauty and serenity to be imprinted on the psyche. The to-do list includes the 14th century gothic church, known as the Black Church because of the scars it retains from a fire in 1689.
There is also the cable car up Mount Tamba to view the town and countryside. I missed it and have to rely on Steve’s photos to get an understanding of how truly pretty the view was. There are a few museums and medieval towers, but what made Brasov memorable was my aimless rambling. The sight lines were seductive. The city is in a state of continuous renovation. Some buildings looked as if they wore their age, others were carefully restored to what they may have looked liked when first erected. They were painted green, yellow and pink with 12 foot high windows framed with intensive scroll work and grand portal entrances protected by carefully wrought wrought iron.
If I looked up the rooftops created a maze of lines, space, and form.
If I looked across the street I might see a home restored to its baroque grandeur.
And if I kept my eyes focused on the scene around me, a panorama of the “old” world would appear.
Coming home from an excursion, I’d plop myself down in the cafe outside the Casa Rozelor.And as I’d sip my beer I’d watch the reflections change in the windows. And for this I wish I had an Ursus beer right now and could transport myself back to Brasov.
When Steve and I were in Romania, we rode a lot of trains. Scenes would whiz by and I would desperately try to capture an image through the dust of the window. Despite the scrim effect, I love this combination of cart and car. It captures the admixture of the country, a little rural, and more and more industrial.
This post is about the Perle Mesta’s of the world, those men and women that know how to throw a fete without sweat. Lois DeSocio, my friend and co-collaborator on The Write Side of 50, is an extreme maven in the field of party-giving. Her menu is never less than inventive: French bread slathered in Nutella and topped with hot sausage, sardines with avocado, swiss cheese, olives and mayo, and meatballs made with grape jelly grace the table. Odd as the concoctions may be, they are always displayed invitingly and usually work as conversation starters. The bar is set up and user-friendly. What looks like thousands of glasses are at the ready for wine and beer, water and soft drinks, distilled liquors and fruit mixers. Olives. The guest list is varied. The combination of every “thing” never fails to make for a great party.
From observing her over the years, I have deduced Lo’s tricks for converting hostess “responsibilities” into a really fun time:
She starts working on her guest list.
About 45 days ahead of the party day, she sends out Save the Dates.
Menu contemplation commences. Different ideas percolate, like whether she’ll have it catered, self-prepared, or a combo of each.
Then there’s the issue of space and place. She’s always thinking of the comfort factor — where people will sit, stand, talk and eat and not feel crowded and overwhelmed.
For herself, she starts the party the day before when she puts on Dean Martin, pours a glass of celebratory wine, and sprinkles the finishing touches on the food. This allows her to act as if she’s going to a party, not giving the party.
And the last most crucial ingredient to being a hostess with the mostest:
She always has a fabulous time at her party. She’s not worrying. She knows she has given her love.
So here’s to those that know how to throw a party. May we learn from the best of them.
I have always been puzzled, and a little offended, by the common stereotype of the middle-aged married man who can’t remember his wedding anniversary. I don’t know how anyone can forget one of most important dates in his life. I have never had a problem remembering it.
It was November 24, 1978, and I was 25 years old. It was a typically overcast November day in Barrington, New Jersey. The wedding was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the day after Thanksgiving. My fiancée had wanted an evening wedding, and the idea was to have it on a day when most people would have off not only the day of the wedding, but also the day after. Friday night also worked well with our plan to take a honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean because cruises typically leave on Saturdays.
I was marrying my college sweetheart, whom I had known for almost four years. We had been engaged for more than a year, and that time had been spent living 100 miles apart at opposite ends of New Jersey. We both were looking forward to moving into our newly-purchased condominium unit in Bardonia, New York, just north of Nanuet in Rockland County.
I was working as an editor on the daily newspaper in Rockland County, the Journal News. But I had just taken the LSATs, and had done well on them and in a year I would begin law school in New York City. My fiancée was working as a proofreader for Price Waterhouse in Philadelphia, and she would soon find a similar job at a big New York law firm.
Living a couple of hours apart meant that we saw each other only on weekends. And my job sometimes made even that impossible. There was no e-mail or instant messaging then, so our only communication was by telephone and letters. Long distance telephone calls were still expensive back then, so letters were the predominant means of communication. Looking back, I think that was actually a blessing because while modern communications are ephemeral, letters are forever. We can still unpack the boxes where the letter stash resides and remember a time before children.
Living apart also meant that my fiancée did almost all of the wedding planning. It was a different time, when men were expected to simply show up with the rings. Everything else was planned by the bride’s family. Even the wedding announcements in the newspapers in those days showed pictures only of the bride. Thank goodness men have made some gains in this area. My son was intimately involved in planning his wedding.
There were a couple of annoying things that emerged from a lack of my input in the wedding plans. For one, the family had arranged that we would go from the church, not to the reception hall, but to a photographer’s studio where a studio portrait could be taken by an octogenarian photographer. This probably took an hour, and so we missed the cocktail hour. And then when we finally got to the reception, there was a different, more annoying, photographer who didn’t know the meaning of the word “candid.” He wanted to pose everything. And our wedding pictures reflect that lack of spontaneity.
But I’m not complaining. Marrying my wife was the best decision I have ever made, and it’s been an almost perfect 36 years. We have two fantastic children, and now a beautiful grandson. I’m a very lucky man. And I celebrate the day it all began.
Things change. All the time. Sometimes we know it, sometimes we don’t, but after becoming repeatedly aware that nothing will be the way it used to be, we wise up and try to see and feel that moment before it flits into thin air. New York City is the epitome of a fleeting landscape. Since it was populated by the Dutch in the 1600s, it has morphed. These days it seems to be at lightning speed. Blink and that brick tenement from 1920 is gone and a shiny glass mega-structure with a cantilevered overhang stands in its place.
But it’s not only buildings that vanish, the little details that mark the space and place of the past are also swept away with each renovation and generation. Things like signs. Signs that speak to a different era.
The other day as I flew through Penn Station, I stopped to take in the red white and blue subway tiles that directed a traveler to the Pennsylvania Railroad. I saw men in gray flannel suits and women in gloves as they dashed to catch the 5:06 to Middletown. Inevitably the sign, like the gray flannel suits and gloves, will disappear, but knowing I know it existed gives me solace when all else around me succumbs to a wrecking ball.