Memories of Thanksgivings Past

My maternal grandparents, Norma (“Nana”) and Ralph DeRicci. She was an excellent cook and baker, and made the most amazing pies. (She died when I was 11, but my grandfather lived long enough to be present for much of my own son’s childhood.)

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and it will be a quiet one at my house: just my husband, our son, and me. On one hand, we’ve all just tested negative for the virus again, we’re all healthy, and we will have a nice meal. Many people have lost their jobs or taken a reduction in income during the pandemic. We haven’t suffered any loss of income (besides my 18-year-old not being able to work over the summer for spending money at college, but that amount would have been negligible). So I don’t have a lot to complain about.

But covid-19 means we can’t get together with family, and I’m remembering, with longing, the Thanksgiving dinners of my childhood.

Both sets of grandparents lived in the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area, and had been friends since my parents were toddlers. So Thanksgiving dinner meant a large crowd, from both sides of the family. We never lived near them, but no matter where we were, we traveled to see my grandparents often, all year around, and never missed Thanksgiving dinner there.

The years we ate at my maternal grandparents’ house, the dining room was too small to fit everyone and all that food, so the feast would be set out on the long table in the basement rec room. We’d have the usual Thanksgiving fare: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green beans, the carrot casserole with the tomatoes on top that I always hated, and cranberry sauce. But no large Italian family can get together for a holiday feast without pasta. So we’d also have Italian dishes, like cappelletti soup, and manicotti or lasagna, with pasta handmade by Aunt Teresa. Nana DeRicci, my mom’s mother, made the most incredible pies, and we’d always have a large variety: pumpkin, apple, coconut custard, cherry, and her specialty, lemon meringue. We have two cherished cookie recipes in my family: chocolate pepper cookies, and Italian wedding cookies (no, they’re nothing like Mexican wedding cookies). Both kinds are still my favorites to this day. Uncle Freddy worked for Planters Peanuts, so there’d be plenty of nuts to munch on, and Mister Peanut serving dishes and memorabilia.

Strangely, what I remember most isn’t eating the food — well, except for those pies. One thing I do remember is the sounds. You can’t get a big, exuberant extended Italian family together without a lot of noise: talking, laughing, singing, playing, toasting, and arguing. I remember the crowded room, with all of us trying to maneuver our way to the table. I remember the smells: the turkey and the lasagna, the pumpkin pie, the cappelletti soup (which I haven’t had or even seen in years), the oregano, cinnamon, and anise.

Of course, those dinners in the DeRicci basement ended decades ago. The house was sold, the older generations passed away, my parents divorced, and my sisters and I married men with families of their own who live in places far-flung around the country. In recent years, Thanksgiving has usually meant just me and Bob and Jon Morgan, as well as my mother and occasionally my aunt and uncle. It’s been at our house here in Northern Virginia or my mother’s house in Williamsburg. Occasionally, the three of us have traveled to the Midwest instead, to see my husband’s family. This year, with a pandemic raging out of control and experts begging everyone to stay home, we’ve resigned ourselves to Thanksgiving with just the three of us.

I couldn’t face cooking, especially for only three people. That would be a lot of preparation time to make very small amounts of everything (we do not have a large freezer). And Jon Morgan and I are vegetarians, so Bob is the only one who would eat turkey. So I’ve ordered the meal from a local cafe, with a lot of the traditional Thanksgiving specialties, but only a turkey breast instead of the whole bird. And with the house currently rather torn up because of a basement flood and planned tiling project, the dining room is packed with displaced stuff from Bob’s basement office. So we’ll set up a card table in the family room.

I do plan to make a tray of manicotti, with a nod to my grandmother Petrini. I’ll also bake bread, and a cherry pie. (I ordered a pumpkin pie with the meal.) I thought about lemon meringue, but I couldn’t possibly bake or buy a lemon meringue pie that would stand up to Nana DeRicci’s example.

I am sorry the joyous Thanksgivings of my childhood are gone. But I am thankful for my family, present and past, for everything we have, and for memories of past Thanksgivings.

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