Thanksgiving is on its way, a day that means different things to different people. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to sing songs appropriate to the holiday that we learned in school. And I had my own repertoire.
In fact, recently thinking of Thanksgiving and growing up in Mattapan, I suddenly started singing several of my favorites, like, “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go.” How I used to love that song. I would picture myself traveling via a sleigh filled with family. Laughing and smiling as we headed to my grandparents’ house for a day filled with fun and food. Of course, that never really happened. One grandmother lived in Lynn, which you got to by driving on roads that might have known a snow plow but not exactly a sleigh filled with family. And the other was Chelsea, also not an easy ride from Mattapan.
My other favorite song was “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing,” which sounds like a church melody and probably is. But when you went to public school in Boston, this was another song we learned for Thanksgiving. I would play the melodies on my mother’s upright piano, which came with her from Lynn to Mattapan and back to Lynn.
And of course, just like many cities and towns, we had our own football rivalry: Boston English High School versus Boston Latin. Our 50-cent ticket got us into Harvard Stadium to witness the boys from English as they often beat the boys from Latin. But occasionally, the Latin school kids were the victors. Was it exciting? It certainly was, but I do have to admit I really didn’t know what was happening (and I still don’t). Oh, and when Latin defeated English, we all kvelled with happiness.
There is something I am almost embarrassed to admit, however. When I was a newbie Latin school seventh-grader, we used to have lists of spelling words that we had to use in a sentence. One of the words was cornucopia, something totally unfamiliar to me.
Who knew it was a centerpiece in many non-Jewish homes but probably never Jewish ones in Mattapan, Dorchester, or Roxbury? When I looked the word up, the picture of the horn of plenty looked like an actual horn to me so I wrote “The general blew the cornucopia.” The next morning when the teacher decided to share some of the sentences, she, of course, read mine aloud to the students. Fortunately, she never revealed my name but I still feel embarrassed every time I think about it.
When my father owned a florist shop under the elevated Northampton Station in the South End, we ate much later; it was a business day for my family and dinner was served when my folks got home. Our menu didn’t have a turkey, but a capon. Since that’s all I knew growing up, I find it unusual that so many people don’t know what a capon is. In reality it’s a neutered rooster, although I never knew that until recently. Neutering a bird has become a lost art. There aren’t many capon mohels around, so most folks stick to turkey.
When my children were very young, it was a lot easier to stay at home with the two boys and the dog. And they loved to show off their current masterpiece, especially when they were in kindergarten and preschool. During those happy preschool years, my children were thrilled to bring home the tall black hat with a white construction paper buckle or a headpiece with feathers. “But what about the buckles?” I know you’re thinking.
Buckles didn’t come into fashion until decades after the pilgrims left England. They were considered a status symbol, since they were more expensive than other fasteners. Pilgrims wore the black conical hats called capotains, but no buckles. Those early settlers were so poor and so conservative, even their belts didn’t buckle. They kept their pants up with leather laces.
I also have to admit my boys really enjoyed Thanksgiving at home as youngsters and they loved to decorate the table with everything but a cornucopia. The kids were big on place cards, table settings, and often some sort of centerpiece creation that was removed when it was serving time. And, true to the 1620s, there were also indigenous people represented if only with a headband and feathers.
By the way, this area was the territory of the Massachusett tribe and the Wampanoag and Nipmuc peoples, who were stewards of the land for hundreds of generations.
After dinner but before dessert meant it was football frenzy time and we’d lose the guys to the TV in the family room. All the men gravitated toward the game with the exception of my husband, who felt it was rude to leave the women, especially me. So he stayed with us until it was time for dessert.
One year, my nieces and nephew convinced their father to go to New York during Thanksgiving to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That somehow marked the end of our mutual turkey days. And now my son and daughter-in-law have come to the conclusion that it’s time to enjoy dinner at a restaurant so no one has to work.
Wishing you all a very happy Thanksgiving.
Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers.