I remember how we celebrated our Thanksgiving. Turkey baking smells wafted through the house for hours. Breading that melted on our tongues, yams and cornbread were served and we stuffed ourselves so silly that we barely were able to get up from our chairs and crawl to the sofa where we waited for the first signs of peckishness. This was the perfect moment for pulling out the pecan pies and for my mother to start the coffee. So far so very typical.
Except that the talented cook was my Italian mother and I lived in Germany, with my American father and my three sisters. It was the seventies and we gave our German Neighbors many opportunities to shake their heads and wag their tongues in wonderment at our strange habits. We spoke English amongst ourselves, German as fluently as natives, attended local schools, but preferred to shop in a bi-monthly shopping spree at the PX, which was only accessible to special ID Holders and read the Sunday Comics.
For at least the duration of a week after Thanksgiving, my school friends would regard my school sandwiches with envy, as the leftovers found their way into my school supplies. In those days you could only find Turkey in inaccessible American shops. This has changed since, but then I enjoyed an exotic diet.
Thanksgiving was for the family. After my older sisters moved out they made sure to find their way back home on that day. Boyfriends and later husbands, sometime later grandchildren to my parents joined. As our family expanded so did the table and we squeezed around it to share our bread and turkey.
At some point my father always made “The Picture”. Lamplight shone in our eyes and we tried not to squint. We held on to our cheese smile but our facial muscles soon shook from the effort as the preparations stretched and my father looked for the perfect angle, lighting and setup. “Move a little closer”, he said as he climbed on a chair, which wobbled under the tall man’s feet. He climbed down again, took more measurements of the light until he was satisfied, climbed back on the chair and finally we heard the relieving click. Well relieving until my Dad said, “Let’s make another one to be sure” and a collective sigh of “oh no” circled the table. A lot of those pictures have been made over the years as the ritual was repeated whenever we had guests, birthday parties, Christmas or Easter to celebrate saved in numbered albums which we leaf through with enjoyment.
Although we lived in a small town surrounded by farms I did not know any farmers. The land was fast disappearing, swallowed by one suburbia development after another. We lived in one of those new areas. Many of my neighbors came from eastern regions, from which they had fled during or shortly after the war. The new street names were bitter-sweet reminders of their origins: Brandenburg, Sachsen and Thüringen. They grew vegetables in their gardens or even reared pigs and kept hens—more reminders of the land and life they left behind.
The rest of us “Neubürger” (new citizens) had to buy the goods that were offered when it was time for the “Erntedankfest” in church (Harvest Thanks Giving) service.
As a child I did not wonder why I was celebrating either Erntedank or Thanksgiving. It never occurred to me that the celebrations might be related. One was a church celebration that I experienced in a German environment, the other a typical American tradition, which I grew up with, in what I now realize, was an untypical family.
Nowadays the turkey is smaller, not only because we tend to all be on diet, but because European appliances, to which we have switched, are smaller. We can buy the bird in German shops, along with Yams and corn flour. We arrived in this country with little more than a tradition and now our food followed us. The world becomes a bit smaller and more familiar in strange places.
And is that not what Thanksgiving is about, is that not what makes my family so American and so typical after all? We have arrived on unfamiliar shores and are pioneers once more, coming together to celebrate our safe arrival and the making of new lives.