Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving was always a bit of a strange holiday to my family. My parents are immigrants, coming to America as refuges from Communist-ruled Poland. They got here and instead of breathing in the heady aroma of the American Dream, they slept cramped together in a one-bedroom apartment, newly married, and about to get pregnant with my sister. My mother had a degree in Architecture obtained from a Polish University. She had ten years worth of work experience with a nicely padded resume that bragged bordering on being obscenely immodest about her talent. However, with an unrecognizably named school and companies, potential firms in the area didn't call her back, told her "I'm sorry, we're not hiring right now," and sent her on her way. My father dove right in, accepting a job working the graveyard shift at a factory and decided it was good enough. My mother struggled, she took some more courses, got a certification in drafting, and found herself mindlessly measuring screw and nail dimensions for eight hours a day. By then, she had a little baby toddling around the house, she couldn't afford to go back to school and do it all over again. She's already got a degree, why did she need to go through that for a second time, learning everything she already knew.

Times got worse, everyone became frustrated, my mother kept lowering her standards until she became a cleaning woman; a far cry from the career woman she had been in Poland. So, when Thanksgiving rolled around every year, she'd robotically go through the process: turkey, Stove-Top stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy from a packet, and pumpkin pie using Carnation evaporated milk and Libbey's pumpkin puree. She skipped the cranberry sauce, feeling eerily creeped out by how well it held its metal can shape; and green bean casserole had the same effect. She made all those things every year, because that's what the nation told her to do. We never did thanks around the table because the day never felt special enough to do so. It was always the four of us, my mom, dad, sister, and myself, every day at dinner and it was still just the four of us on the fourth Thursday of November. Only, there was a giant turkey involved. Our extended families were scattered across the globe and no one thought to scatter near us, or even in the same country as us. So we never had doorbells ringing all night and too many cooks in the kitchen and that one uncle that everyone seems to have who drinks far too much and ends up passing out in his pie.

So Thanksgiving was always just a day my sister and I would be bored out of my minds, my dad would watch football, and my mom would cook the same things that we were "supposed" to cook. Eventually, my sister moved away and it became difficult for her to come home for the holiday. I brought my boyfriend over once, but felt ashamed that our small, quiet affair was all we had to offer him especially when he was used to having four brothers and sisters among other members of the family milling about his house.

Then, the cooking revolution had begun sweeping the country, making it okay to be creative with the seemingly "holy" dishes that was on every house's dining table. Thanksgiving turned into a day where my mom and I would put our heads together, spread out our cookbooks, and figure out how to make the best out of the classics. Stove-Top disappeared and we began to experiment with apples, fennel, and apple cider placed in a bed of chopped up artisan bread. Cranberry sauce finally arrived in the form of fresh cranberries simmering in their jelly juices and popping with exciting bursts of flavor. I decided to tackle a real live pumpkin and created a tradition we can't seem to be without anymore: squash and apple soup simmered lovingly until it turned into a silky, creamy starter that would awaken our tastebuds for the rest of dinner. 

I know this may come across as blasphemy, but it is a truth and could the truth have been any different if our situation were any different? If we had family nearby, if my mother's hard work could've been recognized, if we really tried to make an effort at our very first Thanksgiving to make it more meaningful, would this holiday become more special to us? Absolutely, but this is what we were had and it did grow into something to look forward to every year. America doesn't sit at the table with us, but to know that we have all sat at that table time and time again, that's good enough.

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