Thanksgiving was a bridge
SO many years ago, and yet the memory runs as clear as brook water over smooth, cold stones. ``What is this child's name?'' my new kindergarten teacher asks, and my mother, clutching my hand, answers shyly with the diminutive by which I am called at home. ``Faygie,'' she tells the teacher. ``Peggy,'' the teacher says, not hearing perhaps, or not wanting to, and Peggy I will be for all my grade school years. An Anglicized name wasn't the only thing I brought home from school to my immigrant parents. Joining Brownies was not for me; the troop met in a church basement, and no amount of tears moved my mother from her belief that Christianity was catching.
The differences were bewildering. ``You eat pig's feet,'' I told my gentile girlfriend Eileen, shuddering at the image of the pink, gelatinous blobs Mar-kowski kept pickled in a glass jar on his grocery store counter. ``Well, you eat chicken feet,'' retorted Eileen, stung by my underhanded attack. That stopped me for a moment. Of course, I ate chicken feet; didn't everyone? When we drove to Detroit for the Sabbath, my grandmother always fished out two delicious morsels from the chicken soup, one for my brother, one for me.
It's amazing that Eileen and I ever got to be friends. Our cultural worlds spun on the differences between what parts of the cow we were allowed to eat ... and when.
I was born in 1930 in Detroit, huddled securely with my parents, their families, and friends in a ghetto that in many ways must have replicated the little towns in Russia and Poland from which most of them came. When the Great Depression struck, our family moved to a small Michigan town with few Jewish people. The gates of an Edenic innocence closed behind me, and my Americaniza-tion began in earnest.
As all children do, I wanted desperately to fit in. I was proud of my heritage; my parents had seen to that, but I was proud of being an American, too, and I tried to convince my mother and father that my gentile friends didn't have a monopoly on every holiday in the calendar whose pages we tore off each day at school.
Halloween was a tough one. My parents viewed the roaming gangs in their masks and costumes suspiciously. Hiding behind drawn curtains, Mama jumped at the clash of overturned garbage cans. She would look meaningfully at me and sniff, ``Some holiday!'' The evening before Halloween was traditionally doorbell night in Michigan. Each clang of the bell seemed to bite like a wasp sting. Over and over, my perplexed mother would open the door to the trailing smoke of laughter drifting down the street.
We did picnic each year on a day my parents called ``Fort of July'' as if it were a companion to Fort Apache. I never could get either of them to say it right. We bought tiny American flags at the dime store and snapped them smartly as we stood on the sidewalk downtown cheering high-stepping drum majors and squads of Zouaves performing their precision drills in white balloon trousers and red fezzes.
At night we sat on bleachers at the fairgrounds, slapping mosquitoes, all of us open-mouthed at the multicolored flowers blooming against the black sky. I covered my ears, and half terrified by the fireworks' thunder, felt my heart grow too big for my chest to contain it.
Fourth of July was wonderful, but Thanksgiving was my own special discovery, a holiday I fell upon with relief and recognition. Here was a time like Passover when families gathered at table, another joyful occasion to commemorate faith and the safe crossing of wide waters, a time to give thanks for deliverance and freedom. At last I had found a bridge to America my parents could cross with me, side by side.
We bought a live turkey that first Thanksgiving at a farm just outside of town. On stale bread and leftover oatmeal, we fattened him up in a pen my father fashioned next to the coal bin in our basement. One chill day in late November, we tied a wooden crate to the top of our Chevy and carried the squawking turkey to the kosher slaughterer in Detroit.
My father said the Hebrew blessing before we broke bread. We mentioned the Jews in Europe and prayed for their survival and an end to the war. We gave thanks for our presence in America, the promised land. And when the turkey carcass lay on its platter like the remains of a shipwrecked vessel, my father said in Jewish, ``Faygie, will you pass the pumpkin pie?'' ``Yes, Daddy,'' I replied in English, ``but would you please call me Peggy?''
All that was a long time ago. I am a parent myself now, at home in America, a person my mother would have called ``a regular Yankee.'' My husband and I have faced each other across countless Thanksgiving feasts of our own. Three of our four children have married. All of them have brought to our table partners with backgrounds different from ours. In our variety we form what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls a ``pied beauty,'' a beauty made up of patches of many colors.
Ours is a country dappled with diverse cultures. I pray we sustain those of all creeds and colors who have come here by whatever means. I pray we can continue to welcome those outside our shores who still see us as ``the promised land'' and dream of working for a share in our bounty.
This Thanksgiving, once again, I will give thanks for our differences; they have made America unique. But as I look around our festive table, I will celebrate our commonalities as well, for it is in the resolution of our differences that we will keep growing toward greatness.