Thanksgiving : The Annual-Traditional Celebration

The Thanksgiving celebrations of my childhood were so much better than our current Thanksgivings, and for this, I apologize to the three of you. We are now spread out over three states, and when air travel is involved, Thanksgiving is the worse time to get together.  That is why I understand that it will be a rare time, if ever, that we all spend Thanksgiving together.

Every American celebrates this holiday, so the airlines take advantage of this fact, making travel by airplane expensive and unpleasant because of the crowds. I admit I never realized this until I moved away, thinking , as I would go to my class reunions every ten years, ”Thanksgiving is the best time to have such gatherings.” Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Growing up, we spent our Thanksgivings at Aunt Marian’s house because she had the most space for our huge family. Our early Turkey Day celebrations involved our family, hers, and Uncle Rich’s gang, which made the number a cozy 26, including our grandmother.

As the cousins married and had children, that number continued to expand until, at some point, Uncle Rich’s family stopped coming.

The festivities began the night before with the “Annual Traditional Pre-Thanksgiving Day Table Setting Party.” The official purpose was to set the tables, make place cards, and decide on the seating arrangements. I think that some of the meal preparation which could be done in advance happened Wednesday night. Personally, I think it was just a reason to get the cocktail shaker going.

During those days, Thanksgiving morning began with the Boonton-Parsippany football game, and since Uncle Rich’s kids went to Parsippany High, that made for good family trash talk.

We arrived at the Palazzo house on Cornelia Street some time after the game, and all the kids squeezed into the family room to watch March of the Wooden Soldiers while the grown-ups finished cooking the meal. I know at least one of my siblings continues that tradition, but I am fairly certain none of you girls have ever watched it. I guess we will have to do that at some point.

There were particular items which could not be omitted, such as mashed potatoes, applesauce, peas for sending aloft on airplanes constructed from the place cards, and the most important—stuffed mushrooms. At least I have continued the tradition of making the mushrooms!

Sometime after dinner, we retired to the living room, and Aunt Marian would put on a record by a piano-playing duo named Russ and Eddie and the three aunts would burst into song. While they sang, we would watch the younger kids dance. I was particularly happy when I checked out the recording on Amazon to see this song among their repertoire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRPafEjTCcc&list=PLtX2dZaW8Gf4fueLvHkLF0pzyCMQdSHKV&index=12

At some point, perhaps it was even prior to the sing-a-long, an assortment of after dinner ”cordials” would be brought to the table and we were allowed to pick one to try. Among the bottles would be Crème de Menthe, Amaretto, and Sambuca.  It made me feel very grown-up.

Since we always ate very early in the day, after the food compacted itself in our stomachs, we would later drift into the kitchen for round two, this time hitting up the leftovers.

These were such great memories, but now, alas, my Thanksgiving celebrations today are so small. Last year, there were only five of us. That’s what happens when you move far, far away from the center of the universe.

Early Thanksgiving Celebration: Nancy, Dad, Aunt Marian, Tommy, Uncle Tony

Early Thanksgiving Celebration: Nancy, Dad, Aunt Marian, Tommy, Uncle Tony

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Sleepovers at Grandma’s House

For the first twelve years of my life, I was the lucky cousin, because our grandmother lived in the house next to ours. (My siblings had her for only 2, 4, 6, and 8 years respectively.) After my grandfather died in 1959, my grandma became a regular at our dinner tables—seated at the head of the table opposite my mom.

She loved her role as a grandmother, often bragging about her thirty grandchildren to whoever she met. As the mother of six children herself, she was accustomed to a full house, so she solved the loneliness of her now empty home by opening it up for weekend sleepovers. Hers was the first B&B.

As I recall, she usually allowed at least two of us to spend the night. It was usually two cousins or siblings near in age—Billy and Alan, and Janice and Rosemary are two pairings that come to mind. A funny memory regarding Janice and Rosemary (Uncle Rich’s oldest and Uncle Larry’s second oldest daughter) is that they liked to play dress-up, but not at all in the conventional sense. It did not involve my grandma’s old dresses, hats, and shoes. Not at all! Those two girls enjoyed dressing up as nuns. Don’t ask me why, but it is true!

My grandmother had two favorite shows which she enjoyed watching with us, both of which were musical in nature. The first was called “Sing Along with Mitch.” It was like a YouTube video on television, in which a singer would sing a song, and the words to the song would appear at the bottom of the screen, complete with a bouncing ball to help the viewers “sing along with Mitch.”  It would never last today, but oh, how my grandma loved Mitch! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dY9gtYeHhk

The other show had a musical theme as well—The Lawrence Welk Show. The star of the show, who had a thick German accent, acted as the conductor to his band, which played music targeted toward his older viewing audience (usually involving an accordion), as well as vocalists and dance routines performed by his cast. To accompany what he called his “champagne music” was a bubble machine which sent bubbles flying across the stage. While watching the shows, we would assist my grandmother with her beauty routine, which was to help pluck stiff black hairs from her face. I think Aunt Ar was the real expert with that task and continues that skill even today with your grandma.

My grandma was not a thin woman. I recall her being such a good sport in allowing us to play with her underarm flab. It was so much fun watching it jiggle! When we would awaken the next morning, and before she would emerge from her room, we would turn on the television, snuggle under the covers on her sofa bed, and watch Saturday morning cartoons. Some of my favorites were Gumby, Magilla Gorilla, and Rocky and Bullwinkle. I can probably still sing most of the theme songs today. Those were the days, but then she sold the house, and moved in with the Palazzo family down the street. That is when the grandma sleepovers ended, and they became the lucky cousins!

Grandma with 14 of her grandchildren - 1957. On couch: Rosemary, Janice, Lois, Laurie on Lois' lap, Bobby on Grandma's lap, Nancy holding Gaul, Alan, Tommy, Billy. On floor: Tricia, Timmy, me , Maureen

Grandma with 14 of her grandchildren – 1957. On couch: Rosemary, Janice, Lois, Laurie on Lois’ lap, Bobby on Grandma’s lap, Nancy holding Gaul, Alan, Tommy, Billy. On floor: Tricia, Timmy, me , Maureen

Billy

It is impossible to forget Billy. His family was my family growing up because our mothers were close sisters despite their contrasting personalities.  (And boy were those two different!) I think of him often, but in particular, as July comes to an end, I remember him with sadness and affection.

Billy and Alan: I cannot think of one without the other. Growing up without a brother until the age of eight, those two cousins were my earliest brotherly companions. (Sorry Tommy, but you were a bit too old for me in those early years.)

I remember camping out in our backyards with the two of them, our tent being not a tent but the back of the station wagon. We’d put all the seats down, and talk and laugh until late in the evening. One person, I think me, slept on the front seat and the other two slept in the “way back,” I don’t know how we slept in such cramped conditions, but to us, it was fun.

I learned to play touch football and baseball on the side yard of the Park Avenue house with my Palazzo cousins and the neighborhood Onorati and DeVite kids.  I believed, until very recently, that the official major league rule was “four fouls and you’re out,” because that is how we played.

We played in those woods behind their house and rode our sleds down that hill which seemed so steep in my memory, but is actually quite moderate as hills go. I was shocked when I returned as an adult and saw how small the incline actually was.

When their family bought the Cornelia Street house two blocks down the street from our home, we got to see each other much more often. They moved in during the summer of 1967. I was twelve but Billy was fourteen, so when we would walk around town, I would get exiled to the other side of the street if one of their friends would approach us. It did not matter that we were related. I didn’t like it and was clearly traumatized, since I remember this event so many years later, but I always complied with their order.

I remember walking home from John Hill School where the summer school recreation program was held. Sometimes we would stop at Uncle Larry’s Liquor store (I loved going behind the counter), and other times we would swing by Uncle Tony’s “office”–Scerbo’s Auto Body Shop. I especially enjoyed getting nickel cokes in glass bottles from the vending machines there.

During high school, Uncle Tony would pick me up and drop the three of us off at school. Whenever I see one of those green, tree-shaped auto fresheners, I think of riding to Boonton High with Billy and Alan and Uncle Tony.

Then we grew up and things changed. I went away to college, got married and moved away, and nothing was the same. What reminds me of grown-up Billy is Queen, healthy eating and the kiss of peace at church.

He cut down on fats before it was the thing to do. I remember he told me to substitute applesauce for oil in my brownie recipe, or any other similar recipes when oil is added. So this past year, I made a box of chocolate chip pumpkin bread, and as I added the applesauce, I thought of Billy.

My last memory of him happened at Mt. Carmel Church. We were separated by our mothers, and when it was time for the kiss of peace, he was too far from me to shake hands, so he leaned over and gave me the peace sign. So whenever I am in church and do that, or there is a sixties-retro moment of peace and love, I think of Billy. It is a really nice final memory.

Billy Palazzo

Computers, Microwave Ovens, and Babies

News reports periodically surface regarding a potential link between brain cancer and the use of cell phones. No concrete evidence has surfaced, so we can continue to chat on our phones. A report on the news this week—again stating no link—made me think about fears I had regarding the use of my computer at work, our new microwave oven, and my pregnancy with Kelly.

By the time of that pregnancy, I had already experience three miscarriages, all after years of unsuccessfully trying to become pregnant. I had even gone to a fertility specialist. So this fourth time, I did not want to take any chances. I began analyzing everything I did, attempting to find a cause  of the miscarriages. Naturally, I did a lot of research and came up with, I believed, two possible actions to avoid: my computer at work and our new microwave oven.

The microwave was the easiest object to refrain from using, since I could just relinquish the job to Dad or stand away from it while it was operating. Additionally, we purchased a little gadget, approximately the size of a small cell phone, which could gauge the escaping radiation from the microwave. I was truly worried, and these ovens were relatively new, so there was little information available. But this I could control, and whether it was a real or imagined worry, it made me feel better.

My computer at work was more complicated, since I was employed as a programmer for computer giant IBM. I had a very understanding boss, or perhaps he was just worried about a potential lawsuit. I approached him with my research regarding the use of my computer and miscarriages, expressing my concerns about using it. So from that point on, I would handwrite all my code, and someone else would type it into the computer.

I stayed away from the computer during my entire pregnancy. Was this request ridiculous? Probably, but not definitely at that time. The point is that I saw a potential problem, provided research, and I stated my case very calmly and intelligently. I had nothing to lose, and my request was honored. I figured, “it doesn’t hurt to ask.” And after Kelly was born, I was given the opportunity to return to work. I guess I didn’t scare them off!

 

First Job

Like many (mostly girls) my age, my first job was as a babysitter, and my salary was usually no more than 50 cents/hour. If I was lucky, there were tasty snacks available and the kids were asleep when I arrived.

I was proud of the independence which having my own money provided me, but that meager hourly wage did not go far. I recall one particularly awful job during which I worked ten hours and was given only $5.00. There was no extra consideration for the fact that the parents were supposed to return early in the evening, and they never checked on me once during the night. I never sat for them again!

Therefore, I was excited when I was given the opportunity for “real employment”, which to me, was a job in which social security and state and federal taxes were deducted. My mother worked for a group of local doctors, so when I was around sixteen, I began working at her office. I was the resident floater, filling in as a receptionist, file clerk, and switchboard operator.

As the receptionist, I learned most of the local zip codes which I still remember today, and I prided myself in knowing the addresses of many of the regular patients. Those were usually the allergy patients, who would come in as often as once a week during the busy hay fever season.

A switchboard was a vestige of the telephone dark ages, which came of age during the early 1900’s. In fact, I was a third generation switchboard operator. In addition to my mother, my grandmother was an early operator, working on the third floor of the Boonton National Bank Building, which was on Main Street across from the theater.

 The way it worked was a call would come into the building, and my job was to plug the cord associated with the incoming number into a hole under the name corresponding to the desired doctor. Go and Google “Lily Tomlin” and Switchboard and you will see what it looked like.

I probably received minimum wage, which was $1.50 when I began working and a whopping $2.20 by my junior year of college. The thing is, I was able to pay my tuition and room and board with my income from that job. My tuition was only $535 at that time.  I recently found my earnings statement from 1974, which was just under $811- take home. As you can see, I was able to cover my tuition, and with a few small scholarships, I was able to pay my room and board. It was such a different time then, and no one graduated with the kind of debt that befalls students today.

It is so much tougher, but luckily, I was able to do it myself, because the money just was not there from my parents. I was fortunate even though I now know that we were quite poor growing up..

We All Lose Things- Part II

I thought I would die a Jersey girl because as you all know, very few of our relatives ever leave the Garden State. But life is full of surprises and we eventually did leave the state.

Over a span of four years, we did a mini tour of the Southeast, beginning in North Carolina, moving on to Georgia, and finally settling in South Carolina where I became a South Carolina Gamecock fan. I now tailgate, try so very hard to win the family football pool, and even read the sports column. Girls, did you ever imagine I would evolve into this?

Our football stadium is quite large, with a seating capacity just north of 80,000. After one typically exciting afternoon at a game, I was walking across the adjacent fairgrounds when I became aware of that familiar, oh so awful sharpness on my left ring finger. I felt a pit in my stomach and knew I had to act quickly. When I told Dad that I had lost another diamond and had to go back and look for it, he looked at me like I was crazy. No, no, no, I was not a lunatic. I was confident. I had a proven track record regarding locating lost diamonds. And Dad did not argue, yell, or refuse to accompany me. That is why our marriage has survived since 1978. It takes patience and the ability to understand the quirkiness of one’s spouse for a marriage to endure. And laughter!

My plan was to go to the Lost and Found. After all, I reasoned, the news is filled with heartwarming stories involving honest people. However, walking into the stadium was like swimming against a strong current. No one was headed inside and no one knew where the Lost and Found was located.

Dad was being incredibly patient as I insisted that we push onward. After walking around aimlessly for quite a while, I knew he was ready to throw in the towel, but not me. I had faith, so I suggested we retrace our steps. The last place I had gone after leaving our seats was the bathroom. Was I crazy, or was I being logical?

What was there to lose, so we headed up the ramp to the restrooms? By this time, it had been at least thirty minutes since leaving the stadium, but I was relentless. This gift of being able to find lost diamonds was, I knew, part of my heritage.  Let me digress.

My great grandmother, Mina, also had the gift. While visiting a department store in New York City, she also lost the diamond from her ring. When she realized it was gone, she hunted and hunted for it with no success.

Mina was a very religious woman, so she left the store and went to a nearby church and prayed that she would locate the stone. She then returned to the store, and sure enough, her prayers had been answered. When she later discovered that the church was Episcopalian rather than Catholic, she commented that the denomination did not matter. God listened no matter what church you prayed in.

Back to my story. I returned to the bathroom and headed first to the sink where I had washed my hands. The room was empty by now, and I knew this was probably my last hope. I knew I had to look, but at the same time, I was afraid. Could I possibly be lucky a third time? Yes, I could, I reasoned, and I was correct. There, on the edge of the bowl of that sink of Williams Brice Stadium was my formerly lost diamond. Holy cow! I did it again. I was now three for three in locating lost diamonds, but this time, it had vanished in the biggest haystack yet! I grabbed the diamond, wrapped it ever so carefully in a tissue, and smugly exited the bathroom.

On the way back to the car, I told Dad we should buy a lottery ticket.

We All Lose Things- Part I

We all lose things, but one of my many talents is finding missing objects. My specialty is lost diamonds, right kids? In particular, I have located two different diamonds on three separate occasions. I have witnesses.

The first and second loss was the diamond from my first engagement ring. I was at home doing my favorite chore—laundry. I have been blessed with big fat knuckles, so the diamond is always twirling around my finger.

On the day of my initial loss, I felt an unusual sharpness on my ring finger. I gasped in horror when I saw that the diamond was missing from the setting. I began retracing my steps, convinced I could never locate such a tiny object (this is no reflection on the size of the diamond Dad chose.) I didn’t call him. I couldn’t call him. How could I possibly tell him?

I retraced my steps—family room, kitchen, laundry room. On hands and knees, and then ever so carefully, moving my fingers around my body, hoping to find the diamond on my clothes. But no luck. So now I was trying to decide how to tell Dad, and as I walked toward the phone, I felt an annoying lump in the high-topped boot on my foot.

“Could it possibly be my diamond,” I thought? Trying not to be too optimistic, I slowly removed my boot. I held my breath with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Oh happy day!  Hallelujah! I found it.

Now that I found it, I was able to tell your dad. We went to a local jewelry store and picked out a new setting for the formerly AWOL gem. Since the setting needed to be ordered, we brought the stone home, and I carefully placed it in an inconspicuous location. We were going away, and I knew that my jewelry box was not the place to put valuable jewels in case of a robbery. Everyone knows that.

As you all know, when we returned, I was unable to find the diamond. This time, it was really gone. I was devastated. Dad was so nice about it, and replaced it with another.

Years went by, and I scarcely thought of my dear old diamond, until one day, when Dad was on the treadmill. I had gotten behind in my laundry, which is so surprising since it is, as I mentioned previously, one of my favorite chores. I went to his dresser, and at the back, behind some whatnots, I pulled out a rolled-up pair of stretched-out old socks. And what do you think was inside? You guessed it—my original diamond, which has now become a beautiful necklace which I wear every day as a reminder of my carelessness and my everlasting love for Dad.