Wednesday, November 24, 2004

When leftovers are a feast unto themselves...

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. My father was a city bus driver for twenty years, and my mother was a secretary for the Board of Education and Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan respectively for most of my growing up time. I have three older brothers who claim that I was treated like a princess as a child, but all I seem to remember are the times they would band together to torture me. Two brothers would hold me down and the third would tickle me until either I wet my pants or stopped laughing. I figured out that the best way to end that particular torment was simply to stop laughing as soon as possible. To this day, I’m not ticklish. The other affliction I suffered at the hands of my brothers was the water torture. Again, two would hold me down, and the third one would pour water into my mouth. “Swallow it or you’ll drown,” would be the sage advice they chanted while I gagged. I am fairly sure that the three of them would deny all charges, but we all know the truth. I suppose when television and non-Christian music are not permitted as evening diversions, then boys will be boys and make their sister into their favorite toy. When they weren’t torturing me, I followed them around, listened in on their conversations, and offered my services as a hair braider to gain access to their private den downstairs. It was the 70’s when large afros and cornbraids on guys were also quite fashionable. It was during one of those extended hairstyling sessions that I made the decision to outdo them in some area of my life. They could go out with their friends more than I could. They had larger allowances. They had a radio in their room where they listened to secular music! I had to come up with some way to do something better than they could. When my two oldest brothers began to study Spanish at school, they thought it would be clever to use their newfound linguistic skill to talk about the rest of us. They would chatter away and then giggle at their wit. When I entered the 7th grade and had the option of studying either French or Spanish, I chose Spanish. I learned as much as I could as quickly as I could. I studied all the way through high school, took several classes in college, went on to study in Madrid, and later become a Spanish teacher. (So there, Otis, Glen, and Darryl!) It was in college, however, that my Spanish skills, my working class neighborhood, and this upcoming Thanksgiving Day tradition came together in an unexpectedly memorable way. During my freshman year in college, I discovered that there was a world beyond the neat and what I thought were ironclad borders of these United States of America. One day I went to the home of my English professor for extra help, and when I arrived there I found him wildly enraged and yelling at his television set. I almost declined his invitation to sit and watch the news with him; I’d never seen him so emotional. As it turned out, that was the day the United States had invaded Grenada. I didn’t even know where Grenada was, but I decided to learn more about the situation. I took a political science course during second semester of my freshman year with a professor from Argentina, and my life would never be the same. Central and South American politics became the focus of nearly everything I read, every movie I saw, and every conversation I had. I couldn’t believe what people of so many nations had suffered at the hands of insensitive explorers who had “discovered the new world,” all the centuries of dictatorships that were so common for them and completely unknown to me, and more recently of irrationally greedy multinational corporations. I walked on picket lines near the college campus where I studied. I signed petitions for all sorts of things. I both joined and supported fellow students and townspeople who were conducting sit-ins, protests, and demanding that the college divest from South Africa. My parents denied my request to go to Nicaragua and see the Sandinistas in action, so the next best thing happened: Nicaragua came to Williamstown. During the fall of my sophomore year the national basketball team from Nicaragua came to play against Williams College. They were touring the country and arrived on campus just days before Thanksgiving. Being the overzealous Spanish student that I was, I volunteered to take one of the coaches to my house for the holiday. It wasn’t until we were on our way down to Brooklyn that I thought about my awful brothers, our rather humble home, and the potentially touchy situation we might face with a Spanish speaking Nicaraguan in our mostly black American and Caribbean neighborhood. I wondered what he’d think of our small bedrooms and even smaller bathrooms. What if he saw a roach? What if he didn’t like our neighborhood? Would he like our food? Being that I had long since surpassed my brothers’ rudimentary grasp of the language of heaven, I wondered if anyone else in my family be able to communicate with him since I was by far the best Spanish speaker in the house. I needn’t have worried. My oldest brother was married at the time, and his wife and young son had tamed his wilder instincts. The other two brothers were quite gentlemanly; in fact, I think they were impressed by my Spanish and awed by the fact that this was the coach of an international basketball team. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the four of us siblings and my father could have beaten that team; I basked in their honor and respect for those few, short days. And as for the coach, he loved our house with its cracks, leaky roof, and uninvited multi-legged guests. He said that he’d been worried about how he’d be accepted by my family but that he felt nothing but warmth and love from all of us. My parents loved all the major holidays, and they thoroughly enjoyed preparing elaborate holiday meals. They cooked up such magnificent feasts for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas that my five cousins who lived across the street from us would come to our house early in the afternoon to eat and then go back home for their own meals a couple of hours later, then for a final act of glorious gluttony, they would return for dessert somewhere around 9 PM. That Thanksgiving was no exception to my parents’ legendary cooking forays. The preparations began several days in advance. So on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, we had to eat whatever was left over in the fridge in order to make room for the goodies yet to come. With that in mind, I prepared an apology for the coach: “Please excuse our leftovers. Normally my parents cook great food nearly every night, but this week is different. But on Thursday you will agree that these mediocre provisions were not eaten in vain.” Again I needn’t have worried. He opened the fridge and looked inside for what seemed like an unendurably long time, then he turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen this much food in one place in all my life.” Silence. Shame. Tears. And an early prayer of Thanksgiving. “Thank you, Lord, for these leftovers.” But then a new round of worries came over me: What on earth would he think when he saw the real Thanksgiving bounty two days hence? After the blessing over our heavily laden table and under the appreciative gaze of my incredulous Central American guest, my three noisy, obnoxious brothers ate with a reverence and appreciativeness that set that Thanksgiving apart from any before or since. I almost loved them that day. As for me, I don’t think I have ever thought of leftovers, Thanksgiving, my working class family, or our humble home the same since that day. Happy Thanksgiving!

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