For those of us who grew up in The Valley, Thanksgiving was and still is a holiday steeped in tradition. As Thanksgiving is a wholly American holiday based on that wonderful feast back in 1621 that joined two extremely dissimilar peoples in one celebration it is no wonder that the differing cultures that populated The Valley embraced this holiday. Indeed, the generations that have come before us and made America and The Valley their home had much to be grateful for.
Here, in America, they had reason to hope for a brighter future than was possible in their homelands. The promise of jobs meant they could build their families here at the same time they helped to set the foundations for a growing America. These grateful immigrants were happy to work long hours at thankless tasks, doing menial labor to support their growing families.
As I’ve mentioned previously, my maternal grandfather – Grandpa Stanislawa – worked in a foundry. The work was dirty and dangerous. (Author’s Note: Seamus O’Day in my novel Oak Cliff is patterned after my Grandpa Stanislawa.) My mother often told me about how he would return from the foundry at the end of the day and my Grandma Karolyna would have two buckets of water and a towel ready for him on the back stoop of their home on River Place in Derby. Grandpa would step behind a sheet that was hung out there, take off his dirty clothes, and pour the first bucket of water over his head. Miraculously he went from having coat black hair to pure white hair as the soot and dirt from the day was washed away. After he was cleaned up he came inside to greet his wife and children. My paternal grandfather – Grandpa Mike – worked as a janitor at the Star Pin factory where safety pins were manufactured. His job was not one of a skilled laborer but was more menial. However, he too came home at the end of a long work day dirty and tired. These men, both of whom I am very proud, were the sole support of their growing families – there were twelve children between them. But they were grateful for the opportunity to work.
At home both my grandmothers – Grandma Karolyna and Grandma Nellie – ran their entire households. They cooked three meals each day from scratch, used wringer wash machines to wash the laundry, hung the clothes outside on the lines to dry and kept their homes clean all while raising their children. I don’t think any woman today could do what our grandmothers did each and every day. I’ve tried doing just that in my younger years and couldn’t do a tenth of what they accomplished back then.
When work was over our grandparents liked to relax in all different kinds of ways. There were books and newspapers to read (this was how my Grandpa Stanislawa learned to read English, with a dictionary next to his newspaper); there were church services to attend; there were friends and relatives to visit; and inevitably there were sports to be played. Among the many pick up games that were played in neighborhoods and during family gatherings the ones that seemed most important are the rivalries between schools and towns.
My dad was a big sports fan and as an only child I got to sit in and listen/watch many different sporting events with him. And none was more closely anticipated than the annual Thanksgiving Day Football Game – for us it was the Derby-Shelton game.
High school football rivalry has been around since the early 1900s. We’ve all aware of it even though we may not take part in playing the actual game. During my grammar school years. He would leave the house early in the morning and meet whichever of my uncles or his friends he would attend the game with. Since my dad was originally born and raised in Derby there was no question in my mind that he was putting his support behind the Raiders. During those years I stayed home and helped mom prepare our Thanksgiving dinner. Of course there was a lot of work involved to have everything ready on time. Mom would get up before dawn and start getting things ready for our dinner.
The turkey would be brought out of the refrigerator and washed thoroughly. Mom would always make sure that she had the stuffing prepped and cooked long before either I or my dad would wake up. To this day, I still don’t know what special ingredients she used to make it so delicious although I do know the basic recipe. We always had a large bird – somewhere in the twenty-pound range since my dad enjoyed turkey so much. By the time I was up that turkey had been stuffed, trussed up, and put in the oven.
As mom’s assistant in the kitchen, I got the job of peeling the potatoes and carrots, setting out the cranberry sauce, and rolling out the homemade biscuits. Once those were done, we would prepare two pies – apple and blueberry – and get those into the oven as well. While mom rested for a bit, it fell to me to set the table. This was one of the few occasions that we ate in our dining room. I would carefully pull out the good china and silverware and set the three places.
As a youngster I would monitor the radio broadcast of The Game so that mom would know when to start getting things set out. If Derby hosted the game at Ryan Field we gauged that we had a bit of time before dad got home since there would be lots of traffic; but if Shelton hosted the game at Lafayette Field dad would be home in about twenty minutes. I don’t know how he managed it, but dad always seemed to arrive back home just as mom was taking the turkey out of the oven. In those days I envied dad, who would come through the door with a smile on his face bringing the smell of the outdoors into the warmth of our kitchen and the wonderful aromas that signified our traditional dinner: golden brown turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, buttered carrots, fresh dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, apple and blueberry pies with ice cream.
In 1962 I became a freshman at Shelton High School and a member of the Pep Club. I took my position as a Pep Club member very seriously. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the idea of my attending The Game to cheer on the Shelton Gaels and leaving her with all the cooking. But I was excited beyond measure to be accompanying my dad to Lafayette Field. Of course we parted company at the entrance since I would be joining the other Pep Club members on the bleachers on the Shelton side of the field. I think my dad still took a position on the Derby bleachers that year. As the game began we were led through the cheers by our enthusiastic cheerleaders and I was positive that my loud cheering would help to carry our team to victory.
I don’t remember who won that year, or what the score was, but I did return home with a hoarse voice from yelling and cheering. Subsequent years found me not so involved with the Pep Club. Mostly my friends and I would watch the opening of the game then take off to walk around the outside of the field, hoping to spot other friends. By my senior year, I think my dad actually filled me in on the game plays.
The football game of 1965, my senior year at Shelton High School, was the last football game I attended. Dad no longer went down to Ryan or Lafayette Field but he would sit in the living room and listen to a live broadcast of the game on WADS radio. I suspect that he would have stopped putting up with the cold winds and the long lines to the coffee stand sooner but he knew how much going to those games meant to me during those years.
My grandparents instilled in their children (my parents) who passed on to me their drive for a better life through hard work. For them hard work meant providing a happy life for their children and the hope that those children would in turn have an even better life. This Thanksgiving I am grateful for my parents and all of my ancestors who grounded me so firmly with their work ethic and their hopes for a bright American life.