Every Thanksgiving, my father would slow down the car as we neared the end of the journey to my grandmother Julie’s house. As the boxy outline of Fall River’s textile mills began to take shape, he’d point out the landmarks of his childhood: the Chow Mein factory on the right and the Polish church on the left.
“Who lived in that house up there?” he’d quiz us.
“Your piano teacher!” my brothers and I would answer, without missing a beat.
“And this house, with the blue lights?”
“The crazy neighbors who used to make wine!”
Fall River was 75 minutes and a world away from the quiet and solitude of our Cape Cod upbringing. It was busier and vastly more exciting than where we lived. It was where you could get a Del’s frozen lemonade any time of the year and the best Portuguese fish and chips, but only on Fridays. It was exciting things like billboards and smokestacks and fences around the yards. We stitched together the story of it, of where our family was really from, through some mix of the tales we heard and the scraps of holiday memories we held on to.
We would recognize my grandmother’s house on Coggeshall Street by the sight of my uncles standing at the edge of her driveway, smoking cigars around a propane-fueled turkey fryer. The peanut oil would pop from deep within the vat, droplets hitting the cold sidewalk with a hiss. That scene was the first marker that we’d arrived, before we’d even crossed the threshold into the cozy chaos of Julie’s apartment.
The air inside smelled like cigarette smoke and Bell’s seasoning. When I think of my grandmother, I see her in her tiny kitchen bursting with pots and pans, pulling casserole after casserole from the oven, people with faces I can’t quite remember milling around her, laughing and pouring drinks.
Julie’s Thanksgiving parties dated back to Thanksgiving Day 1950 — her wedding day. Widowed young, she nonetheless turned her wedding anniversary into a boisterous, open-doors annual event, and she never turned anyone away — even when two turkeys became three and three folding tables became four. It suits the image I have of her — as a giver, as infinitely generous, if a bit of a tough cookie. She quit school after ninth grade to work in the textile mills to help support her family. She raised four kids while working two jobs. She always took me to the Dollar Tree when she babysat, pressing a $5 bill into my hand and telling me, “Go ahead now.” And on this day, every Thanksgiving, she stirred and carved and served until everyone was fed. Only at the end of the night would she sit down with a glass of port and instruct my father to start playing Christmas carols on the organ.
In these rooms that spilled into one another, over the competing sounds of dozens of voices, it was difficult to separate fact from fiction when the stories of Thanksgivings past were swapped. Remember the dropped turkey incident? Remember when Popi’s sleeve caught fire? Remember the time the dog bit Uncle John? (That dog was drunk for a week was the punchline that followed.)
Always, it seemed to me, there were more people than chairs and more dishes than room on the tabletops. There were turkeys and cranberry sauces and the usual hodgepodge of things that perhaps did not belong together but were each vitally important to the feast. A baked ham from Auntie Nise. French dressing. A sage-and-cinnamon-scented mélange of ground pork and whipped potatoes from Julie. Portuguese stuffing — a chouriço-laden bread casserole from Diane or Uncle Charlie. And of course, the showstopper: a whole pumpkin skewered with cubes of cheese and kielbasa.
After dinner, pecan pies and delicate flans vied for space on the countertop while my father made his way to the ancient organ in the living room. He held us all in suspense, fiddling with the pedals, raising the perennial question: Will it wheeze back to life this year?
All of it was sensory overload for a shy and sensitive kid, but I counted down the days until I could watch the scene unfold again. And I learned so much: that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sounds so much better with an organ’s ’80s synth beat behind it. That you should always make double or even triple the amount of food you think you will need so you can send everyone home with a box of leftovers. That there was a certain point in the night, when an empty glass was handed to you, that you were to fill it with water and not another drop of port.
Still, the day when any of it might change felt so far away. You don’t anticipate the deaths and illnesses and family fights and selling the house. Nor can you foresee the exciting new jobs that lead to beautiful new houses in faraway cities. The wonderful new boyfriends and girlfriends who become the spouses that require splitting up the holidays.
It’s hard to pinpoint the demise of my grandmother’s Thanksgiving. It wasn’t sudden. Even when she died, in 2010, we shuffled hosting responsibilities and kept at it, holding on to what we could, year after year, until gradually we had to accept that the holiday no longer felt like Julie’s Thanksgiving. Then, in 2020, COVID took a seam ripper to the whole thing and we settled for sending Thanksgiving Bitmojis from inside our safely sealed homes.
This year it feels especially urgent to rebuild something wonderful. My brother’s first child — her due date was the day after Thanksgiving — arrived this week. Molly’s birth has me thinking about which of our family’s traditions will live on, which stories will be retold, and which memories will simply be lost.
What will I remember, and what will I be able to tell my kids someday when I’m driving past Coggeshall Street? I can still feel my feet hit the oil-smeared sidewalk in front of the house. I still smell the cinnamon and sage. I see Julie as she stands by the organ, warbling out the tune to “Christmas Don’t Be Late” in her best Alvin and the Chipmunks impression. I can still sense it all, for now.
I don’t know how I will ever stitch a tapestry as rich or as meaningful as the one from my childhood, but I’m holding on tightly to a handful of threads.
Hannah Depin is a writer, a home cook, and the communications manager at the food and nutrition nonprofit Oldways.