Once in a while, I meet an innocent ignoramus who’ll ask me with a straight face: “do they celebrate Thanksgiving in Russia?” I usually reply, “Well, it’s a holiday that started because people wanted to celebrate the Pilgrims arriving in America, so… no. No Native Americans in, you know, Russia.”
Russian immigrants like us celebrate Thanksgiving here, though. I’d say that for most, it’s the one big holiday with which all have developed a connection, even the ones who are really skeptical of anything organized or official, like my parents. (They don’t like organized things because based on their experience, officials and organizations can only serve to hurt you.)
It’s actually become my absolute favorite holiday, even better than New Year and my birthday (past a certain age, birthday just… lose their festivity, and I feel like I’ve been past that age for a while).
Our first Thanksgiving here was…
It needs backdrop.
We arrived to Boston in April 1990 as part of the late 80s early 90s wave of immigration. Uncertainty was abound among the ranks. On day 3 of American life, my dad went to work “under the table” as a jeweler downtown; my mom signed up for typing courses at the community college; I was registered for school. We rented an apartment about a month and a half after. It was whirlwindish.
Back in Russia, we lived in what would here be a 1 bedroom apartment: mom, dad, myself, grandma, and grandma’s sister, so the three of us had never really been alone until we emigrated, and when we arrived in Boston and moved into our first apartment, you could say we finally became a family in our own right.
By the time November came around, we were old hands at living American; I was kicked out of ESL classes for speaking English too well, Dad had had his first raise (from $6 to $8 an hour), we figured out free dental care at Children’s hospital, and Mom was working as a clerk at Party Favors on Chauncy Street. After Halloween, my mom couldn’t help but notice that all the vampires and ghouls were suddenly replaced by these big ugly birds, and “Gobble Gobble” was written everywhere.
“What is this, gobble-gobble?” my mom asked her manager. “I don’t understand this.”
Her manager, Jim, was a funny guy; a Southie lifer, and active in his Irish American Club, he also read Russian literature for fun. On my mom’s advice, he took up Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, finished it and wanted to discuss it. He had already read War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, and wanted a challenge. He had a big round belly, a long pony tail, and spoke with the kind of Boston accent that actors in movies try to emulate but fail at miserably. This was lost on my mother, who at that point in her life wouldn’t have known a Southie accent from a southern accent from a South African accent. Jim became her American culture coach, so he was the one who patiently and sincerely explained Thanksgiving to my mom, without wondering why it wasn’t celebrated in Russia, and if he was amused that she didn’t know what it was, he didn’t show it.
“Never roasted a turkey?!” Jim said.
“No…” my mother confirmed. “Never seen a turkey. We ate turkey wings in Italy, but we are so sick of them already…”
“Forget turkey wings!” he said, “I will teach you my grandmother’s old recipe. Turkey and stuffing!”
On the day, the turkey made it into the oven around 10 am, and we decided to go for a walk while it was cooking.
It was a blustery Boston November day, cold and windy, and I recall, for some reason, sand in my eyes and plastic bags rolling around the pavement like tumbleweed. We walked down Beacon St, which appeared to be eerily empty. Everything was closed and there were no people on the streets. We walked all the way into the city. By the time we made it, we were freezing, and wanted to have something warm to drink, but everything was closed; Boston was a ghost town. We walked all the way from Brookline to South Station, the only place where things looked open, and had … oh god… had 2 hot chocolates for the 3 of us… a huge money expenditure at that time…
Then, we took the T back home. The turkey was almost ready when we got back, except there was still a half hour left for the final step, which was to remove the cheesecloth and allow the skin to get browned and crispy.
We sat down, just the three of us, and ate it with Jim’s grandmother’s stuffing and cranberry sauce…
Indeed, we have a lot to be thankful for: we came here umpteen years ago with nothing seeking freedoms not available to us in our previous homeland, not unlike the Pilgrims of yore, and have been welcomed and allowed to create a spot for ourselves within the mosaic of the community. It was like arriving to an event, and looking for a seat, and having some people shift over and let you sit next to them, make room for you so you can be a part of what they’re a part of… We’re kind of Pilgrims in a way, so the idea behind Thanksgiving resonates – at least for me.
It was easily the best day ever, and has been since, for the last 27 years.