The Thanksgiving table at my cousin Paula’s house in Springfield, Massachusetts, is long. It may be several tables crammed together; I can’t tell from the photos I see on Facebook each year. It’s covered with a white tablecloth and a forest of white pillar candles nestled in a centerpiece of pine needles. It’s not the only table in the house. There are others set up to accommodate the 30 or so people she invites to Thanksgiving each year: a card table in the living room, a kiddie table in the kitchen.
In one photo, my aunt Pauline leans in to listen to Bryan, my twentysomething first cousin once removed, telling a story. In another, Paula laughs at something her sister Karen is saying. There’s one of Cousin David—“the handsome one,” Mom always calls him— leaning back in his chair as if he’s about to loosen up the ol’ belt buckle. There’s another of a little boy eating turkey. I don’t know who he is.
I’m a little jealous when Paula posts these photos each year because I’m remorseful that I’ve never attended an official Pandolfi Thanksgiving in my life. Even though the same words have been uttered or emailed to me a thousand times before: “You’re always welcome.”
Those photos remind me of something I often forget: that I come from a big family—a big Italian-American family. That my father grew up alongside five brothers and one sister in an Italian enclave of Springfield. His family listened to Enrico Caruso records; his mother made a mean red sauce. Dad and his siblings worked together at the Pandolfi Italian catering company, which was located in a cinder block building behind their house. They were really Italian.
Look at the photos of the Thanksgivings I grew up with, and they’ll tell you a different story. Flip through the Kodaks and you’ll see just me, my mother (half Italian/half Irish), and my father seated around a much smaller table than the one at Paula’s house. The person behind the camera is likely my Neapolitan grandma, the only extended family member we kept in close touch with after Dad packed us off from Massachusetts to the Cincinnati suburbs in 1979. He got himself a good job with a good company.
After a few years in Ohio, the only thing that identified our heritage was a plaque bearing our surname, Pandolfi, which my father proudly mounted above our front door as soon as we moved in. We assimilated into a subdivision of mostly upper-middle-class families of German and English descent. Prince Spaghetti Day was replaced by London Broil Wednesday. Enrico Caruso gave way to Christopher Cross. We became less Italian, and more “Italian-ish.”
I suppose that’s what happens when your family moves away from where it’s from. When it loses its ties and its traditions and its foods. Mom and Dad sacrificed those things for upward mobility and American dreams—a better life for themselves and their son. There was no reason to feel sorry about it.
But my father was sorry. He apologized more than once for denying me the kind of childhood he’d had. He felt bad I never got to enjoy a house full of visiting aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews. He missed those things—the voices of that Big Italian Family, the ones that emanated from his kitchen and living room, his backyard, and his front porch on a regular basis. He was especially sorry when the holidays rolled around, our sparsely populated dining room table a reminder of all that was lost.
I liked our Thanksgivings, though. I liked being an only child. I took solace in our tiny holidays more than Mom and Dad could know. That move to Cincinnati—it was rough. I was chided for my Mass-hole accent, the cheap Huffy bike I rode, the Red Sox jacket I wore until my parents replaced it with a Reds jacket just so I could better fit in. Thanksgiving was a day I could forget about all the teasing and the occasional scraps I got into at the bus stop. I just liked being with my parents. I just liked being at home.
My own family is a mirror image of the one I grew up with: just me, my wife, and a daughter named Sylvie. We spend our Thanksgivings in Florida with my mom. Sometimes she invites a guest or two, but it’s always an intimate affair.
View Recipe: Braised Leeks with Parmesan
Dad’s gone now. He’s been gone for 26 years. But I think he’d be happy to see I’ve brought back at least a few of the Big Italian Family traditions we skipped over in my youth. I’ve learned to make my grandma Pandolfi’s red sauce. And, after finding a copy of Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking on a curb in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I live now, I can make a passable carbonara too. From that book, I improvised a braised leek and Parmesan recipe that’s now one of my favorite sides. I think I’ll serve it this Thanksgiving—a little reminder to my daughter that she comes from a Big Italian Family. No matter where we live. No matter how things change.