2020年11月25日 星期三

Lessons in Gratitude From My Grandmother

Our pandemic sacrifices pale in comparison to her immigrant journey.

Lessons in Gratitude From My Grandmother

My grandmother, pictured here with my grandfather, uncle and mother, was always thankful for her life in the U.S., even if she never felt fully American.Jessica Grose

Every Thanksgiving, my extended family poses for a photo on an outdoor staircase, as many as four generations from my mother’s side staggered across the steps. My mom tells me that this year will be the first time in almost 50 years that we won’t have this photo. While my heart breaks that my kids won’t get to see their passel of cousins from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, I’m still grateful. And among the reasons I’m able to muster so much gratitude, looking down the barrel of a depressing and likely lonely winter, is because of my Oma — my mother’s mother.

Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday. She was a nonobservant Jew, and it was the one holiday she really went all out for, the only time the extended family gathered. The meal my mother makes to this day consists of Oma’s recipes. These dishes weren’t exactly the stereotypical American meal; there were never canned cranberries, and Oma would have rather died than put marshmallows near sweet potatoes.

The foods she prepared — a wild rice stuffing with sausage, a sweet potato souffle, cakes that always tasted of almond — were her immigrant interpretation of the traditional fare, shaped by an Austrian background and her idea of what it meant to be a midcentury American wife and parent. Which is to say, a central European flavor profile heavily influenced by Julia Child.

Oma and Opa, my grandfather, arrived in America under duress from Vienna: Opa in September 1938, and Oma several months later, after witnessing the terror and destruction of Kristallnacht. My grandfather’s family was devastated by the Holocaust; Oma’s family was luckier, but still permanently dispersed among England, Israel and the United States.


My mother said that Oma loved Thanksgiving because she was thankful for her life here, even if she never felt fully American. Both her wholesale adoption of Thanksgiving and her reimagining of the meal are common rites of passage for new Americans, although the holiday as we know it today was created partly as a way to control new and often undesired immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th century.

President Abraham Lincoln began a national day of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to honor battles won in the Civil War, and President Andrew Johnson continued the tradition, though Southern states refused to celebrate the holiday until after Reconstruction, which ended in 1877. The mythology of the Pilgrims as a persecuted Christian minority and their relationship to Native Americans and their harvests weren’t dragged into it until later in the 19th century. Janet Siskind, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, points out:

The explosion of interest in colonial history at this time was due to the fear of immigrants and the cultural changes they might foment. The Pilgrims provided a model of the good immigrant, imbued with religious conviction, a member of a Chosen People, striving to make a life in a new world.

It’s an unusual holiday not just because of the Pilgrim worship, but because it’s a national, mostly secular celebration that is centered around one specific basic meal: turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, said Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University. Many religious celebrations involve particular foods, but nationalistic celebrations rarely are so culinarily uniform.

The turkey itself is a particular object of struggle for new Americans, said Ray, who studied 126 Bengali immigrant households and their cuisine for his book “The Migrant’s Table,” and is a Bengali immigrant himself. “Me and the people I study have never cooked a huge bird like that in any form, ever,” he said. “Most of Indian cooking is stove top. It felt like the most alien thing to do and the most difficult thing to do.”


For first-generation immigrants, “this ritual of Thanksgiving was entangled in this ambivalent sense of how to mimic the routine of the culture without ceding to it fully, and turkey becomes the site of this contestation,” Ray said.

The reason they’re taking the risk of making this big, foreign bird is for their children, Ray added. They knew the children would be hearing about turkey at school, and they wanted their kids to be able to fit in with their new peers. Lidia Marte, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico who has studied Dominican immigrants in New York City, found similar patterns: The turkey was cooked solely for the new generation, but it was infused with Caribbean spices, and served along with more typical Dominican side dishes.

For some of the families Marte studied, the turkey was also a marker of food security. If they could afford a turkey, it meant “they could join the national holiday and cook what everybody else did,” Marte said. The Thanksgiving meal could be a bridge, between who they were before they migrated, and their adaptation to a new society.

By the time I came into the picture, my grandparents were financially secure, and Oma had already perfected the Thanksgiving turkey after decades of practice. But I find myself imagining their first Thanksgiving after my mother was born. My grandfather had struggled to find an internship and residency after attending medical school in Vienna, and then was sent back to Europe as an Army medic in 1943. They had my uncle just before my grandfather shipped out, and my mother came along a few years after World War II.


They had settled in Peekskill, N.Y. by then, and during my mother’s first summer, my grandparents witnessed the Paul Robeson rioters march past their house, yelling anti-Semitic and anti-Black slurs, and bringing back flashes of the terror that my grandparents thought they had left behind. I think about Oma going to the grocery store just a few months later, and buying a turkey, poring over a cookbook in her small kitchen, doing her best to get it right.

The sacrifice we are making this Thanksgiving by staying home is so small compared with everything she experienced, including the 1918 Flu pandemic, which swept through Austria when she was a child. The best way I can honor her is to help cook the meal she pioneered for our family, be grateful we can afford any kind of feast and continue to wear my mask so that we can all be here again next year.

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

To keep my 5-year-old daughter entertained while I make dinner, I’ll ask if she wants to watch the “Mommy Cooking Show.” She sits across the island as my audience while I describe what I’m doing, or give her a simple task to help with. She loves it, and I can cook uninterrupted! Kristen Roth, Charlotte, N.C.

If you want a chance to get your Tiny Victory published, find us on Instagram @NYTparenting and use the hashtag #tinyvictories; email us; or enter your Tiny Victory at the bottom of this page. Include your full name and location. Tiny Victories may be edited for clarity and style. Your name, location and comments may be published, but your contact information will not. By submitting to us, you agree that you have read, understand and accept the Reader Submission Terms in relation to all of the content and other information you send to us.

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