In my house, the night before Thanksgiving was the beginning of cookie season. My sister and I couldn’t wait to help mom with her baking. I don‘t know how many cookies she made each year, but every weekend until Christmas we seemed to travel through half the state of New Jersey delivering them to friends and family. But Thanksgiving had a new meaning for all of us in 1945. On May 7, Gen. Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the Allies. The war was over and for that we were all thankful.
While mom was preparing the dough and “stuff” for the cookies, dad started peeling potatoes, stuffing the turkey and making cranberry sauce. Struggling to maintain an even heat in the oven of our six-burner oil stove, he still managed to make it through all the interruptions.
Mrs. Gabowitz was continually borrowing sugar, the Grandells always seemed to run out of something or other and every holiday Mr. Kislin was strangely short of heating oil. In kindness, my friend and her mother at the Chinese laundry would always bring us homemade Asian food the day before our holidays, which I really enjoyed more than the turkey — but I couldn’t tell that to mom.
By mid Thursday afternoon the promenade of the Thanksgiving feast began. There were at least 40 families living on my block over bars, restaurants, grocery stores and other small family businesses. None of us knew everyone, but we always nodded our head, tipped our cap or said hello to most of our neighbors. We did know a few of them from arguing over a place to park. In the New Jersey streets, the one who sounded the meanest, yelled the loudest and had excellent command of trash-talk superlatives usually won the argument. Having an Italian accent didn’t hurt either. The chatter on the top floor fire escape started and the promenade began.
Every year, Mrs. Lore, the self-appointed matriarch of our street, started the neighborhood feast. From her fourth floor apartment window she would yell across the alley to Mrs. Olkowski; “Hey! Are you Pollocks finished stuffing your face yet?” The reply was always the same: “Who wants to know?”
Within minutes Mrs. Lore put a brown paper bag containing her homemade Italian pastries, pie and goodies in a pail, hooked it to the clothesline and sent it over the alley to Mrs. Olwkoski, who, in turn, sent the same bucket back with Polish sausage and stuffed cabbage.
Soon the frozen clothes lines connecting our buildings were dancing with buckets of treats and ethnic delicacies that created the bond between different cultures in a diverse and eclectic neighborhood.
The noisy hallways of our building were crowded with neighbors sharing their Thanksgiving treats with others. It was almost like Christmas when I was waiting for Santa Claus to come down the non-existent chimney. My dad always told me Santa delivered the gifts up on the roof. Mom was ready for the neighbors. We had small bags of cookies, pumpkin muffins, gingerbread and chocolate fudge waiting on the table by the door.
The African-American lady from upstairs brought us one of my favorites: gravy and sweet potatoes. The Puerto Rican man from across the hall brought small pieces of baked fish with fruit. The German family from the end of the hallway brought samples of apple and peach strudel and the Irish lady across the street always cooked enough stew to feed half the neighborhood.
The late afternoon turned to darkness and it was time for our Thanksgiving dinner. Dad recited the standard blessing and gave thanks for our humble environment so rich with good neighbors and ethnic diversity. He prayed his children would be tolerant of other cultures and grow to understand that human kindness lives deep in the heart of every man regardless of his nationality or the color of his skin. He prayed the end of the war would set a new standard for world peace. Instead, the war set a new and more dangerous standard for world destruction.
After all these years, I’ve never had a happier Thanksgiving than the one on that frigid night in 1945, when the cold, misty air shrouded our aging tenement overflowing with the warmth of real friends, loving parents and human kindness.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at email@example.com. His Web site is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.