My Nana, on my mother’s side was a Holocaust survivor. When she was very little, right before Nazis were invading Russia, her mother, my great-grandmother Jana, who I’m named for, sent Nana and her brother Max to the United States to escape persecution. They took a boat to the United States and tried to get into the United States at Angel Island Immigration Station in California in San Francisco Bay. According to my Nana, officials refused to let her and her brother into the United States because they had “already met their quota of Russians.” So, the ship dropped them off in Mexico, and Nana grew up in Mexico.
She met my Papa during the Korean War. My Papa was an ophthalmologist. He grew up in the Bronx. He worked at a medical center in Mexico during the war. My Nana also worked at the same medical center. She had studied in Mexico and become an obstetrician. It was love at first sight, from what I understand. After the War, Papa took Nana back to New York and the two of them lived there until around the late 1950s, when they moved to New Jersey. My mom lives in the house she grew up in.
Nana’s entire family minus her and her brother were killed in concentration camps. They had starved to death. That is why you were never allowed to waste food during Thanksgiving.
After I woke up, I would go the kitchen and turn on the Macy’s Day Parade. My favorite part used to be when the Broadway shows would be performing. Now-a-days, I’m lucky if I’m even awake for any of the parade. Every Thanksgiving, I would make brownies from a box. Papa’s favorite treat was brownies, but Nana had him on such a strict diet due to his various medical conditions, including diabetes, heart issues, and cancer, but she would always let him have brownies on Thanksgiving. Considering they came from a box, and the kitchen and me were NEVER best friends at the time [something I’ve been trying to remedy over the years], they probably weren’t the best brownies, but to Papa, they meant everything and represented Thanksgiving.
We left for my grandparent’s apartment around three pm. They were forever on “snowbird” time, and Thanksgiving represented the last week they were in New Jersey until they relocated to their apartment in Boca Raton, Florida until Passover.
Thanksgiving was one of the few times I got to see my entire family before they all had excuses as to why they couldn’t make certain occasions. My Uncle Denis would come with his wife Aunt Carla and their only child, Jerry Garcia. Yes, that’s really his name. Every year, Carla would make her cranberry sauce, which wasn’t really a cranberry sauce, it was more like a cranberry strudel. And every year, we had to make sure we each got a little bit of it as soon as it came out of the oven because my brother would eat the entire thing. Aunt Susan would drive up from Massachusetts with my cousin Sammy and her late husband Jim. She would always bring a variety of deserts, there was always one kind of cheesecake, homemade chocolate whipped cream, and an apple pie. When my cousin Jacky was older, and went to college in New York City, she started to come to Thanksgiving too. She would take the bus up from NYC the night before Thanksgiving and spend the night at our house. I loved it when she came over because she was the closest thing to a sister I ever had. We would stay up all night talking, she would attempt to give me makeup and hair tips, and we’d gossip about whatever boy I was dating or into at the time, and then we would take lots of selfies. Her and I would wake up and make the brownies for Papa together.
The first course of Thanksgiving was always “Nana’s Soup.” It was a split pea soup with carrots and flanken steak. I’ve tried so many times to remake that soup. I’ve made it in a Crock Pot, made it on the stove, and even got the recipe from my Nana, but it never tastes like hers. The second course was Thanksgiving turkey, Brisket with potatoes and carrots, mashed potatoes, asparagus that never got eaten, and Carla’s Cranberry Sauce. There was also Nana’s applesauce. It’s the family recipe that’s been passed down from Nana to my Mom to me. It’s a mixture of Granny Smith and Golden Gala apples chopped into medium sized pieces, the chunkier it was, the better it tasted, cooked in a reduced diet black cherry soda and sprinkled with cinnamon. It’s the one food tradition I’ve brought with me from New Jersey to Texas for our smaller Thanksgiving celebrations here. The key was serving yourself at Thanksgiving, if you let Nana serve you, your portions would be huge, and then she would get offended if you didn’t finish your entire plate, and nobody wanted to upset Nana.
Then came desert, consisting of Papa’s favorite brownies, and the smorgasbord of other deserts that Aunt Susan brought, as well as some fruit because Nana believed there always had to be something “healthy” to make up for everything else. However, unlike the main meal, Nana wouldn’t lecture you if you didn’t finish your plate. She would judge you based on how much desert you took and lecture how if you ate too much desert, you would get too fat, and you would never find a husband or wife and never give her great-grandchildren. Therefore, the key was taking a tiny bit of everything, ensuring that there would be leftovers for later that you could eat in your own kitchen without Nana watching you.
After the meal, the kids, which meant everyone under age 18 were dismissed to the TV room. The adults would drink coffee or tea and talk. The talk was never anything particularly exciting to me, it was usually about the stock market or listening to Papa lamenting about how none of his grandchildren followed in his footsteps and became a doctor, but I was so happy I was adult enough to be included in these conversations. Eventually, the talking just stopped, and the L-tryptophan started doing its job and everyone became exhausted and the goodbyes started. Carla, Denis, and Jerry were the first to leave, followed by my family plus Jacky. Nana would give us at least a week’s worth of leftovers and almost all the deserts except for Papa’s brownies.
As soon as we got home, Jacky and I would find a movie to see, usually a Harry Potter, if one of them was out at the time. We’d aim to find the movies that ended after midnight. As soon as the movies ended, we’d drive to one of the many New Jersey malls and start waiting on line for those Black Friday sales and we’d try to score as many pairs of shoes, as much makeup, or clothes as we could possibly find. When we got home, just as the sun was starting to rise, we’d model our purchases for each other, or Jacky would teach me how to put on the makeup I just bought before eventually collapsing on our beds from exhaustion.
That was over ten years ago. Papa died in 2010 while I was in Israel on Birthright at his request. Nana tried to make Thanksgiving work the year after that. But it just wasn’t the same. There were no brownies and the feeling of emptiness without Papa made everyone feel hungry. The year after that, I moved to Houston, to live with my now-husband. I used to fly back just for Nana’s cooking and to see my family, but that stopped the year after I moved here, in 2013. Ever since then, we haven’t had a family Thanksgiving. Uncle Denis tried to hold one in his ski house in Vermont, but Nana didn’t like being so far away from home and wouldn’t go. Jim died, and my Aunt Susan keeps herself and Sammy in Massachusetts because coming home brings her too many memories of holidays in the past with both her father and Jim. My brother got married and spends all of his holidays with wife’s family. Jacky recently got engaged and is busy traveling the world with her fiancée.
I don’t really miss the food of Thanksgiving. It was delicious, and I’ve yet to even gotten close to mimicking any of it. What I’m the hungriest for is my family and all the traditions of the past from Papa’s brownies to Carla’s cranberry sauce to Jacky’s makeovers to Nana’s insistence on something healthy with every meal. I’m hungry for my family, especially since it seems like family isn’t a thing for us anymore now that we’re all older.