The Rule was that no one left the table until the meal was done, but the Rule only applied to the children. The women sprang from their chairs like pages in a pop-up book throughout the meal, bringing in more butter, stirring soup, adding the last-minute dash of slivered almonds that turned ordinary green beans into something French. At 6:00 PM my father and uncles and their eldest sons rose from the table en masse and moved into the den to watch the Evening News and puff El Producto Escepionales. In obedience to The Rule, the children remained at the table with our Aunties until every crumb was picked clean from our plates.
Cigars, the men who smoked them, and the saintly women who endured them both, are part of every memory of my childhood. My mother once spent the better part of a Winter afternoon coughing her cookies into a roadside ditch in Northwest Detroit after riding in an airtight Chevy swathed in the acrid bouquet of my father's smokey Puerto Rican mistress. Mom was pregnant with me at the time, and I heard this story frequently as part of "The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born." That story and a photograph of my expectant parents—mother, left hand resting on her expanded belly; father, right thumb and forefinger crooked around his cigar as him arm rested on her shoulder, created a certainty within me that I had been a cigar in my previous life.
By the time I learned the truth—that before I was born I had been a twinkle in my father's eye—I, too, had fallen prey to the noxious vapors that particularly marked our holiday gatherings. When I was eight, I taught myself to slide—inch by inch—from my chair as the meal progressed into the less polluted regions beneath our holiday table. Since I technically remained at the table, The Rule remained intact.
A few days before every holiday meal, Uncle Buddy or Uncle Fred came by the house and helped Dad carry the plywood boards from the basement that transformed Mom’s elegant 12-seater Thomasville dining table into something akin to a landing strip. Dad had seven brothers and sisters; Mom had two—actually, three. There was an Aunt Adele somewhere in the Midwest no one ever talked about. To this day I don't know why. Some years, Aunt Min and Uncle Bill breezed in, bright-eyed and golden, from California. He never wore a tie; she always wore sandals, even in the winter. The year cousin Suzanne got married four new relatives came to dinner.
The ceremonial “Bringing Up the Boards” was my first sign a holiday was approaching and cued my sister and I to begin rehearsing the talent show we performed at the end of every family gathering. After practice, I'd peek into the kitchen and watch my mother climb a white Rubbermaid stepstool and retrieve the good dishes from their sacred resting place in the top cupboards of her kitchen. The year I was tall enough to reach the dishes on the stepstool was the year I stopped sliding beneath the dining room table.
The day before the festivities, Dad checked the bar in the den to make sure it was well stocked with "Sevens." All the adults had a Seven and Seven on the Rocks before dinner. Once, Uncle Ernie had a few too many Sevens and kissed my Sunday school teacher in the front hall closet.
Our holiday meal consisted of brisket—a little well done—and turkey, the coveted drumsticks going to Uncle Ernie and Cousin Jerry, the eldest male of my generation. Aunt Dora made gefilte fish, Aunt Sissie made barley soup, Aunt Flo made chocolate brownies. My mother made Egyptian Rice. A few raisins, more slivered almonds; there was really nothing Egyptian about it, but we all felt so exotic eating it.
The children ate white bread turkey sandwiches, an obligatory bite of salad, and the marshmallows off the top of the sweet potato casserole. Everyone complained we ate too much, especially the men. After dessert they "rested" in the den with their belts loosened and their legs crossed at the ankles while the women cleared the table, divvied up the leftovers, and did the dishes.
About 7:30 PM, cousins Harvey and Irwin announced the talent show would begin in ten minutes and ushered everyone into the living room. Janice and I glided downstairs in our “costumes”—the matching pink nighties Mom bought us before every performance—with all the panache of Garland at the Palladium. Our repertoire included an animated version of "Sisters," a song popularized by the Andrew Sisters, and a medley of tunes we learned listening to Dad's Mitch Miller records. Once, on the eve of some historic family meal, I kept Janice up past midnight teaching her the words to "America the Beautiful" so I could sing the descant. Uncle Vic begged to be our opening act; Aunt Sylvia smiled and said, "But dear, you gave up tap dancing when you married me." We'd giggle; then we'd sing. Aunt Millie grinned. Our mother cried. The applause was deafening.
I am now many years beyond the age my parents were when I first slipped under our dining room table. I live 2500 miles from the home that sanctified the last family dinner of my Springtime. I still sing the descant to "America The Beautiful" whenever I hear it, and occasionally make a batch of Egyptian Rice. I never did have the chance to see Uncle Vic tap dance, but I never eat a chocolate brownie without thinking about Aunt Flo.
Sometimes, I catch a whiff of an El Producto when I'm walking down the street. These days, it doesn't smell all that bad.
I did not know in my Springtime how much these dinners would come to mean to me in my Autumnal years. As a young wife and mother, they were the footprints I walked in to create Thanksgiving dinners—complete with talent shows—for the friends who had become our family. As my children grew into their own lives and the dynamics of our holiday celebrations shapeshifted, I began to understand how “doing without” is both a loss and a gift—how the absence of something dear to you opens you to a cellular understanding of what is meaningful to you, a deeper gratitude for what was, and new ways to create what you value most.
We come to know what we really love, what is important to us, by doing without it for a long time. Finding new ways to give ourselves what is most dear to us, is an expression of Self-love. And Self-respect
The Psalms say, “Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing.” 30:11 This is how we can move forward in the difficult times we live.
Margaret Wolff is a writer, storyteller, art therapist, and retreat leader. Her work celebrates the ways in which the collective wisdom and storytelling reveal the truth and beauty of our inner lives and connect us—heart to beating heart—to each other.
COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda (White Pearl Press, May 20201), is a curated collection of 14 modern-day stories of spiritual awakening that reflect “the most creative and transformative experience life can offer—developing an intimate partnership with the invisible God of one’s heart.”
Available wherever fine books are sold.