Pilgrims and Indians.
I remember pulling on white tights and black Mary Janes in the kitchen. I remember a floral table cloth and an ironing board, but my eyes gazed towards the television where Tom Turkey floated across Herald Square. I was more than four and less than seven years old.
She took us to the church that was dark and quiet still, and we were alone with the early light that came across stained glass windows to the faces of the saints. She wanted to be a nun, but grew up and took care of the priests there instead, and as a result, we were able to run the course of the pews like maps in our minds.
Those were the same pews that would be filled with dozens of those very priests too few years later when she met God again. The same pews that we would walk quietly through twelve years after that- out the door and down the stairs- as priests in Gregorian chant took her husband to his resting place on a gray morning on the 12th of November.
These were my grandparents.
For the first years of my life, my cousins and I donned bonnets and feathers over our holiday best as we re-enacted the first Thanksgiving meeting at a morning mass on Staten island before 9 AM. When you grow up as an Italian-American with a big New York family, you know that this is just something that you do.
You also know that just as quickly as you play card games or whiffle ball around the Virgin Mary statue in the backyard, you play Communion, giving each other cookie "Bodies of Christ." You know that at any given time someone would be throwing rocks and someone would be yelling, and there would be more than two nuns at the kitchen table telling you about your Roman nose. Someone would be doing penance on the stairs for the rock-throwing, and our grandpa, the King of Hearts, the always constant in this wonderful chaos, would be mixing the Ambrosia. He was the one bit of non-Italianess in the family that gave everyone their height and calmed their Sicilian tempers.
When this is your family, you understand that a salty antipasto or stuffed artichokes precedes any turkey dinner, and trays of dessert precede even that. I can vividly see my baby uncle's fingers sneaking under the cellophane wrapping of Renato's cookies before 5pm. I can see my godmother following suit. My mother would be after that and in no time, I could see many cheeky smiles around the table, as if every year they were fake surprised to find that we always eat dessert first.
"The Castagne" are vanilla cupcakes stuffed with a chocolate chestnut cream and topped with a vanilla bean buttercream. The chestnut, which drops from the tree in the fall, has long been a symbol of abundance, of bounty, of rejoicing in what we have.
And so, when I think of this, I think of my family. The pictures of the children at Thanksgiving that have grown over the years. The grand-babies have been replaced with great-grand-babies, who wave tiny fingers in the air at their angels: our two grandparents who grew this abundant family and now protect it from above.
Last week I went to church, on a Wednesday at lunch. It was a new parish, one I'd never been before, but the way the light hit the walls, it was familiar. You see, familiarity to me is not the likeness of something to my memory, but the closeness of how much I can relate the experience to my family and find peace in that.
Those walls are everywhere. In a cathedral off 68th street, in the church of seven churches in Italy, in my uncle's hall in New Jersey where we gather in memorial of it all in honor of my grandfather each year.
This is my family. I take comfort in knowing that with them, no matter who I am or where I am, I am never alone. I could find them in a song or in the movement of light, and when it comes down to it, that's what familiarity is all about: it's familial...and it means that there will always be dessert.