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Joyful Noise

Family at Table for Thanksgiving Feast

A decade ago, my mother-in-law Maria’s parents welcomed me, the xeni, the little Amerikanitha, to Greece with open arms and an aromatic kitchen. A bud vase with a single bloom brought cheer to my room. Towels lay folded on an easy chair. A small package awaited me on the bed. I was asked to call them Yiayia and Papou, Greek for Grandmother and Grandfather.

Maria’s parents, Evangelia and Efstratos, wear their history in the wrinkles on their faces, in the strength of their hands, and in the fullness of their laughter. Papou was a butcher for most of his life, and Yiayia helped him run a restaurant from the front of his shop. Hard workers in their small village at the foot of the Taigetos Moutains, their life had not passed easily.

At dawn the next day, Yiayia’s countertops held a colorful array of eggs, meats, cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, and zucchinis. Bowls of flour, sugar, salt, and seasonings lay beside a worn cutting board. Yiayia shuffled into the kitchen, hands bloodied with a rooster she had just slain. Her smile filled her happy face. After she washed her hands, she waddled over to give me a hug and kisses.

Kalimera, Christina!” Her words of good morning carried light all the way into the center of my heart.

Kalimera, Yiayia.” I knew very little Greek, and was thankful when Maria walked into the kitchen.

“Ready, Christinaki?”

“Yes! Let me grab my coat.”

We walked all morning. Along the way, I met her neighbors, many of whom were childhood friends. Each person we called upon encouraged us to sit down and have a cup of coffee or a small snack. After visiting friends, we walked to the plateia, square, and saw yet more friends—all of whom gave me whole-body hugs, and spoke in Greek to me through broad, toothy smiles. On the way home, we picked three wild pomegranates to enjoy later.

The long table on their covered porch held six settings with six small glasses for wine. In a bowl in the center of the table lay a mountain of fresh pasta coated with mizithra. Beside it was a platter piled with pieces of fresh roasted rooster in tomato sauce. At the other end of the table were a large salata horiatiki, village salad, and plates of cheeses and fried zucchini. Yiayia came out of the kitchen with a basket of bread, baked that morning at the village bakery. Maria poured the village wine.

Kali orexi!” Good appetite! “Kai Christina!” And to Christina!

I smiled and nodded, my stomach tight. I clinked glasses then sipped the delicious village wine.

Immediately, joyful voices peppered the afternoon air. Papou talked to me in Greek, even though he knew I had no idea what he was saying. His diabetes had taken a toll on his vision and his diet, but not his exuberance and love of life. He barked for Yiayia to offer me more, making certain my plate was never empty, regardless of my protests. Maria and her sister laughed with pride while he told stories of older days. Voices overlapped, inserting details. It was noisy. Noisy with joy.

Later that night, Maria took me to the plateia, square, for ice cream. It was well after nine o’clock, and for nightlife here, even ice cream, the hour was early. It is not unusual for partygoers to begin their evening at midnight and stay out until dawn.

But it wasn’t the party scene that caught my eye. Walking through the plateia, I noticed children. Everywhere. I was aghast. Didn’t these little ones have civilized bedtimes?

Long wooden tables covered with white tablecloths filled the space. Glass lanterns cast a warm glow upon the faces of parents, grandparents, and kids of all ages. Little legs and feet blurred as knots of giggling children ran all around. Glasses and plates littered the tables, some empty, many filled with tasty mezedes: spanakopita, tyropita, tzazkiki, salata, psomi.

This scene, juxtaposed with the luncheon I experienced earlier that day, gave me a new sense of what family get-togethers could sound like, could feel like. I reeled between my quiet, routine-oriented American experience and this joyful celebration of hospitality. A rich memory now lay etched on my heart.

~~~~~~~~

When I was growing up, gatherings at my parents’ and grandparents’ homes always had beautiful buffets. Silver glistened in candlelight. Antique china platters were filled with just enough food for the crowd, not less and not more. I suffered in stiff, itchy dresses bought for each occasion. And we children sat away from the adults, at what was known as “the kids’ table.”

Before the first glass rose or a prayer was said, someone—usually a grandmother—made a comment about how I had too many mashed potatoes, or about which cut of meat my sister should take. Family meals large and small were a responsibility. A place where good manners were to be displayed, minced words were passed, and quiet children could be appreciated from a distance.

I remember at the age of twelve feeling as if maybe, finally, I’d be allowed to sit at the dining room table and commune with the adults I adored. That Christmas evening, I twisted my hair into an elaborate bun and wore my best dress with confidence. I took measured steps down the hall to the living room.

The music of Beethoven played in the background. The adults in my family sat in small clusters, talking in restrained voices. Candlelight mixed with dimmed lighting kneaded the knot in my stomach.

My maternal grandmother, dressed in a pale blue silk dress, was the first to notice.

“Oh, Christina, don’t you look grown up,” she crooned.

I think I grew at least two inches with these words.

She went on, waving her empty highball in my mother’s direction. “Just darling. She is such a good example for your other daughters, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is,” my mother responded with a hollow smile.

Of the two inches I’d just gained, less than a millimeter remained.

Later, I tugged on my mother’s sleeve. I pleaded to sit at the adult table this year. Eyes downcast, she shook her head and nudged her guilt out of the way. “But you’ll have so much more fun at the kids’ table, won’t you?”

I acquiesced. White flag.

She walked down the hallway to the living room.

Babysitter, again.

I’d supervise my younger cousins so my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles could eat in our family’s version of adult peace. It was the first and last year I would try to gain a seat at the adult table, away from the rickety card table full of noisy kids. From where I sat, I strained to hear. All that filtered out of the dining room were low voices: polite comments about the food, the beautiful evening, and politics.

So much for a communal, familial experience at meals. Our formal tradition of restraint held firm on the separation of family members, segregated by age.

~~~~~~~~

In my early years as a wife and mother, I aligned myself with the experiences I had with Maria at my husband’s childhood home, and at her parent’s years before. I absorbed how she moved in her kitchen, how she entertained large gatherings, how she loved her sons.

I wanted my children to sit among the people they loved most during dinners large and small. I wanted the food infused with my love. I wanted joyful noise.

I studied Greek. I hosted dinner parties with friends, and then—as our families grew—with friends and their children. I read cookbooks—Greek and American—as I used to read novels. I tried new recipes (with many failures) and asked Maria to teach me traditional Greek recipes. Now, with almost nine years of marriage behind me, I feel like I am the hostess—and mother—I want to be.

A few years ago, I realized this was true when my sons were of kid-table age at Thanksgiving for the first time.

I called my mother a few weeks before the big day.

“Hi, Mommy. I’m getting excited for the holidays. How are you feeling about Thanksgiving?”

“Good. Why?” Her confusion lingered in the phone connection.

“Well, I know you’ll have more houseguests than you’ve had in awhile.”

“I know. I am excited. Aren’t you?”

“Yeah. Well, I know that means a lot of people . . . so, I am hoping that the kids will have a place at the dining room table. I really want them with all of us.”

“I think we can arrange for that . . . Sure.” Hesitation, but wish granted.

We are fortunate enough to live in the same city as both of our families, so we spend major holidays by visiting each celebration. Round one of Thanksgiving this year would be with my husband’s family, at my sister-in-law’s house.

When we arrived, the energy was contagious. It was a boisterous scene of jokes, stories of old times, and innocent teasing. In the kitchen, Maria’s hands worked with intention. As the minutes to the meal wound down, she checked the temperature of the turkey, whipped potatoes, and laid out serving dishes. Her whole body—her whole being—flowed from one dish to the next.

My sister-in-law has an open floor plan and set her table at an angle for the meal, moving her living room furniture off to the side. A card table was needed, but it was flush to the end of her big table; everyone would be seated together.

By one o’clock, everyone was seated. All of us raised a glass and cheered to our healthy family, the glorious day, and the meal before us. Plates and forks clattered, adding a rhythm. From one end of the table to the other we shared stories, each person adding texture to the joyful noise.

Later that afternoon, we drove to my mother’s home for round two with my family. Just after we arrived, my middle sister filled me in on what I had missed so far: my youngest sister grumbling about peeling the potatoes; my grandmother repeatedly asking what time we would sit; and that politics—bo-ring—was the topic du jour. I could deal with all that, but where were my kids going to sit?

In the dining room, I counted the seats. My heart bloomed. Enough for everyone, and two of the place settings included little wine glasses half-full of milk.

While Daddy carved the turkey, my mother added last minute touches to her buffet. My sisters filled their glasses with champagne. At five-thirty, my mother called us to make our plates.

Eleven of us sat around the dining room table. Since I was the only church-going member of the family, my mother requested I say the blessing. I emphasized the part where I said, “Bless us all around this table tonight.”

Dinner conversation did remain in low voices, and the topics politely restrained, but an aged tradition had been replaced with a new one. That Thanksgiving was the beginning of a new tradition for my family, one that included everyone around us, young and old. No kids’ table. Not that night. Nor any other time heretofore.

Christina Marie Speed

Author Bio: CHRISTINA MARIE SPEED taught overseas and in the US for several years before admitting to herself that she needed to give in and just write. She has written a short column for The Lahontan Valley News, and is currently a Literary Reflections Editorial Assistant at LiteraryMama.com. A full-time wife and stay at home mother, and part-time literacy coach for children, she writes creative non-fiction, poetry and books for children.

Contact Christina at christinamariespeed@gmail.com.

1 comment to Joyful Noise

  • I can feel the energy in the holiday tables you describe with your husband’s family and I applaud your transference of positive influence to your own family’s holiday dinners. Wonderful piece. Thank you!

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