As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 20, 2022. Above, I’m seated on the floor, fifth from left, with my older brother and cousins at a family gathering circa 1965.
I wonder how my great-grandparents, Giovanni Pantalone and Grazia DiMaio, celebrated their first Thanksgiving.
Giovanni had arrived in Providence from Naples, Italy in 1906 with the couple’s oldest child, Mary. The following year, Grazia made the transatlantic passage with three more of their children, including Vincent, my grandfather. Like many Italian immigrants in Rhode Island, they settled in a small apartment on Federal Hill, where Giovanni had found work.
If my great-grandparents did celebrate Thanksgiving during their first year together in America, I imagine 9-year-old Vincent was skeeved out by the turkey. Years later, as the patriarch of our family, he insisted that we feast on capon instead, a castrated rooster fattened to be tender.
“It’s a cleaner bird,” Papa said.
By that time, the Pantalone family had flourished. Giovanni and Grazia’s seven children had 21 kids of their own, with 56 offspring following in the next generation.
My grandfather and his siblings had settled in and around Providence. Like immigrants before and after them, they relished the comfort and support that came with having proximity to kin in a new land. Into this loving family I was born, the 12th of Vincent’s 13 grandchildren.
The Pantalone embrace was sweetly felt at weddings and summer gatherings and especially on Thanksgiving Day, which saw my mother, brothers, and me crisscrossing a two-mile familial footprint in Providence’s Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. We would trek to Academy Avenue for coffee and sweets with my mother’s cousins Tina and Gracie, whose towering duplex was a joyous extended-family hubbub; to Gentian Avenue for a quick visit with my Auntie Rita and her family, including my closest cousin, Tommy; back to our house on River Avenue to feed our dog and catch a bit of the Macy’s parade on our black-and-white Zenith TV; and then to Auntie Marie’s house on Winona Street, where adults sipped cocktails and kids quaffed Cokes. Uncle Harry made sure there was plenty of ice in the freezer.
Our feast would start with Italian wedding soup, so-called for its heavenly marriage of chicken stock, escarole, mini meatballs, and tiny pearls of pasta. I always asked for seconds.
One year, before we dipped our spoons in the first-course goodness, Papa offered a toast: “Without me, none of you would be here!” he said, raising his glass of wine. Everyone laughed, though I saw my mother shaking her head.
After we all had our fill of capon, Auntie Gracie and her family arrived from Greenville for coffee and dessert. With their move seven miles to the northwest, they were our modern-day Magellans. Other family members would one day venture farther away – to New York and Florida, Ohio and Colorado, California and beyond. But for now, Papa’s brood lived happily in Rhode Island. And I was too young to understand either the tug of the invisible ties connecting my brothers, cousins, and me to Giovanni and Grazia and their passage to America, or the uniqueness of the family closeness to which it gave rise.
Our Thanksgiving celebration continued deep into the night. Around the piano we gathered and sang, on-key and off-key, with smiles all around.
On the five-minute drive home, in the see-your-breath chill of my mother’s Ford Maverick, I was warmed by the sight of lights aglow in houses along River Avenue and by the certainty that in four weeks on Christmas Eve, we would all be back together again.