We usually spent the holidays and many winter Sundays at Grandma’s house. Dad and Mom piled us five kids in the woody station wagon and set out on the parkways west ward. Traffic from the Long Island suburbs to Brooklyn made the 35 mile trip into a two-hour exertion with squirmy kids whining and poking each other.
Grandma lived on the second floor of a two-story, semi-attached house on West 5th Street in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood. Her brother’s family lived on the first floor. When we finally arrived and unfolded ourselves from the car, the five of us kids stomped up the first set of stairs, banged on Uncle Tony and Aunt Rosey’s first floor door, heralding our arrival, then continued the climb to the second floor. Grandma had her door opened and stood waiting to gather us into her ample arms. A multitude of cousins jumped up and down behind her.
Everyone came to Grandma’s house. How she and my aunts and mom cooked volumes of food in that tiny alley kitchen was a marvel. Throughout the late morning and into the afternoon, pots were stirred, oven and stove flames adjusted, and gossip shared. Grandma kept the side window opened even in the coldest weather. Prepping was done on the formica table next to the kitchen. The table and chairs swallowed the room. Someone had to shuffle chairs and push the table back so that the front door could completely swing open.
Two bedrooms and the one bathroom were in the back. The bedroom windows facing the back courtyard held the fire escape where soda, wine, and trays of antipasto kept chilled. Walking back through the kitchen area led into the dining room. The big table, hutch, and treasured baby grand piano filled the room. My siblings, cousins, and I took short cuts under the table to get to the front room. Within twenty minutes, Aunt Rosey was banging on her downstairs ceiling with a broomstick, reminding us we were making too much of a ruckus. Her light fixtures were shaking. Grandma handed us ripped handfuls of Italian bread dipped in sauce and shooed us outside.
We played jump rope and hopscotch on the sidewalk. My cousins, Joann and Angie from the downstairs apartment, knew all the chants. An uncle played catch or Monkey-in-the-Middle in the street. Back then, the traffic was minimal. Only residents used the street and everyone was already home.
Once the food was ready, Grandma opened the front window and called us to the table. Dads and uncles gathered every chair in the house. The kids sat at the formica table. We took off our shirts and Sunday dresses and sat around the table in undershirts and slips. Since there were never enough chairs, little kids sat on the laps of the big kids. I was the eldest of the big kids, so my lap was never empty of a messy eater and sauce. Mom and my aunt served us plates of macaroni with a meatball or sausage topped with a mound of grated parmesan cheese. Each kid got a glass jelly jar of milk (lots of bartering went on who got the Yogi Bear or Flintstones glass). If a kid had a sophisticated palate, eggplant parmesan, a slice of roast beef, or fried cauliflower were added. Most often, us kids opted for the macaroni. We had been grazing all afternoon on bread dipped in sauce, olives, cheeses and sopressaata in between chasing each other through Grandma’s house, under the table, and down the stairs. Besides, we were saving room for the pile of bakery boxes on the piano and fire escape.
After saying grace, the kid table conversations and chaos began. Spills and whining were the major topics. Someone would laugh so hard that milk came out of his nose, setting everyone else into a fit of laughter. Mom and Aunts hustled us through dinner, then let us play “quiet games” in the front room while they sat at the adult table. Grandma suggested charades, which was never quiet.
When my parents hosted the holiday and Sunday dinners, the house swelled with family and friends who were like family. My parents’ home was substantially bigger than Grandma’s house in Brooklyn. Several folding tables and every chair in the house were gathered to expand the dining room. Mom dressed the table in crochet table cloths and, as the years flew by and family expanded, she set two china places. We squeezed around the hutch and treasured baby grand piano.
The kids’ table- a long picnic style, sat in the adjacent kitchen and held 8-12 kids. A few ate in their undershirts. But Dad wanted everyone to sit together. He revealed over his brood, exclaiming the blessings we shared in the company of love.
I continue Dad’s tradition. When I expect a crowd, the kids and adults gather around one table. Folding tables and chairs expand my dining room into the foyer. We squeeze in. My little grandson or grand nephews prefer laps. Chaos is part of the meal. No matter how new and aged the faces, the blessings of home and food in the company of love and family abound.
Did you grow up with a kids’ table? Was it fun? How has your family traditions evolved?
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