Here in Italy, Thanksgiving day itself can be rather lonely.
Not the whole of the week, but there are moments during the day itself — that fourth Thursday of November — that are too deeply connected to home. I picture it in my head: the family sitting down for Thanksgiving lunch. The table set. Stuffing, and potatoes, and cranberry sauce all on the fancy plates that we keep in the cupboard for special occasions. Perhaps they are memories of what used to be — sometimes I can picture my mother cooking or the busy Thanksgiving morning and that yellow linoleum floor in the kitchen that is no longer there: dad had it replaced years ago. Thanksgivings change over the years as we go in different directions, but oh how I wanted to be home on Thursday to see my family. Italy just isn’t the place for such a Thanksgiving day.
But we’ve made the most of it over these years. We’ve found a way to celebrate every year — even last year in the middle of a pandemic, we may have had the smallest of dinners on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but it was complete with all of the fixings: cornbread muffins and sweet potato casserole and two spinach and mushroom quiches — my brother’s recipe. A little reminder of home. This year on Thanksgiving day, I made pumpkin pie for my students at school, and we went around the room sharing what we were thankful for. They didn’t all know how to talk about it. Gratitude comes in waves at times, and it can be hard to hold onto. But this year, for Thanksgiving, I was determined to make the most of these months, no matter what.
I had doses of gratitude all day. At lunch, expat friends and I brought small versions of our favorite Thanksgiving dishes — there was stuffing and green bean casserole and even canned cranberry sauce, the kind that you slice into little medallions and eat in bitefuls next to the mashed potatoes. In the evening, as I was buying groceries, I saw a note that my friend Corrie had sent me that brought me right back home, to the start of September when we went last minute grocery shopping for cans of cranberries for Thanksgiving. It seemed like Thanksgiving was so far away then, but here we are already, she said, and it reminded me all at once of how thankful I am for the friendships I have, near and far. And I talked to my dad as well. We video called him from Antonello’s shoe factory, and there they all were, gathered round the table like I’d imagined. My brother sent pictures of the pies he’d made, and I saw the table all set, like it is every year. We laughed and we huddled around the phone so we could see everyone — my niece and my nephews in the background, waving.
My Thanksgiving dinner will be tomorrow. Over here, Thanksgiving lasts just a couple of days longer, and I love celebrating on the weekend, those last few days before December takes over. Over time, our Thanksgiving lunches have turned into this tradition of lore — the whole family comes, and friends of my nieces join us, just to take a peek at the turkey roasting in the oven. Some friends come just for dessert — for pumpkin pie and apple cider and a taste of what they think America might be. I am not sure if my dishes are American at all, but they are family dishes, dishes from home — persimmon pudding, sugar creme pie. Each dish is complete with its own story, and Thanksgiving dinner is how we tell them. I make the same dishes year after year, and I can still remember back home years ago, watching mom in the kitchen, the flurry of activity of Thanksgiving. I remember the sweet potatoes on the stove, how mom would eat them with a spoon straight from the pan. I remember the turkey in the oven, the way the smell and the heat overwhelmed our small kitchen every time someone opened the oven door. I remember making devilled eggs, making dip, setting the table with just the right plates. And I remember the pies: apple pies and pumpkin pies and mom rolling out pie dough until midnight the night before. I would watch her pinch the crust into fluted edges, and wonder how she did it — so perfectly, one edge after another.
I wish I could say that I learned everything from those Thanksgiving mornings, and that now my pies are perfect just like mom’s were. But they aren’t. I do my best. Sometimes the dough is too crumbly. Sometimes I can’t roll it out well. Most of the time my edges are only halfway fluted, and I still don’t know how she managed to make hers perfect every time. Some of the time I write to my brother in a blind panic, asking him for help (me: How long am I supposed to cook the persimmon pudding? Paul: I have no idea), or I look back through the recipes, remembering. Instead of mom here, I have her words: in the form of instructions and guidelines and notes scribbled in the margins of the recipes she handed down to me. I read them word for word — I pore over them — looking for little tokens of the memories, moments that are now long gone. And every year I roll out one extra piece of pie dough like she and I used to do. We would slather jam on it and eat it late at night, and I do just the same. The words, the pie dough, the late nights in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s as if she’s here with me. Maybe it’s just a ritual of love, Thanksgiving. Generations of dishes passed down from one family to the next. From mother to daughter. From brother to sister. From friend to friend.
I am excited about tomorrow. My own nieces are coming over, early in the morning like they always do, to help with what is left: the garnishes, the salads, the setting of the table. Each place setting, with a little pumpkin for each person that is coming. They’ve grown up knowing this every single year: Thanksgiving Sunday, right before Christmas begins. Early this morning one niece wrote and asked if she could bring a friend, and I said yes. I did a quick count: that makes seventeen people for tomorrow’s lunch. And this evening, just now, another niece stopped by to chat, to rummage around the fridge and see what I’d made. It’s Thanksgiving! she said aloud, her smile bright and cheery as if it were the best day of all — her favorite day. Sometimes I wonder what will happen down the line, in this little corner of Italy on a Sunday in November. Maybe my nieces will carry this tradition in their hearts, years from now. Maybe the memories from my past, from Thanksgiving all together, from my mother, my father, my grandparents, my family, will somehow take root here, in the most unexpected of places.
Tomorrow it’s starting. Or maybe it’s already begun.
Happy Thanksgiving weekend! Buon Ringraziamento.
Today I’m listening to: Paprika by Japanese Breakfast.