An Immigrant's Thanksgiving

Up until a few years ago Thanksgiving always felt a little weird for me. I use the word “weird” because something about it always felt off – like something that fits just a little too tight – which I know sounds odd because it’s Thanksgiving. For God’s sake! It’s a time to reflect and give thanks with friends and family. It shouldn’t be that complicated. Well ….

Thanksgiving is an American holiday and while my parents really did try for my brother’s and my sake to join in the holiday tradition – there was always something missing. The turkey and the trimmings were all there – but absent was this big, happy, far – reaching family that I imagined was gathering at everyone else’s houses.

We had this strange dichotomy going on in the Cronin household. We were an immigrant family without an immigrant community. We literally had no one around us with whom we could relate. Isolation had been an unwelcome ingredient in our lives and it is only now that I recognize it – though I definitely felt it as a child.

My mom and dad came to New York City separately in 1965. My mom was barely 19 and often talked about the severe culture shock she experienced coming from rural Ireland to the eclectic melting pot that was New York City. She found comfort in the fact that even though she was in a completely foreign world – over 3000 miles and an ocean away from home – she landed in an Irish immigrant community. It was a community that already served as home for her brother and sister and countless friends and neighbors who paved the way before her. So even though the hustle and bustle around her was initially jarring – she had the warmth of the core of the Irish immigrant community enveloping her. So, despite feeling lonely for her mother and father at home, she was never really truly alone.

The Irish community took care of each other. They cried for memories of home but laughed with optimism for the future and they did it together. Some of my favorite tales originate from my mother’s early days in this country. One summer night my mom and her friends were sitting outside her apartment building trying to find relief from the unfamiliar heat when lightning bugs started lighting up around them. All the girls skinned their knees falling up the concrete steps to the door trying to escape these creatures they had never seen the likes of before – and toppling over each other in the process. Apparently they don’t have lightning bugs in Ireland.

A few short weeks after her arrival in the States – NYC was plunged into darkness during The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. What could have been a horrifying night turned into a great Irish party – because the young Irish lads in the apartment above my mom and her roommates – pulled out a few candles, an accordion and bottles of booze – and soon filled the pitch black, quiet night with laughter and music. Typical Irish.

Eighteen years later – the Pennsylvania mountains called my mom and dad away from the scorching Bronx streets to raise my brother and me in a place with fresh air and a backyard that did not have Subway trains running through it. The trade off was not without heartbreak because in leaving behind the obvious difficulties and dangers of raising a family in the Bronx – an entire other family was left behind. My mom said she was devastated and lonely and went as far as placing a FOR SALE sign on our new Pennsylvania home -but she would look at Johnny and me and imagine what our futures would look like – frying eggs on the blazing sidewalks, having to walk big city blocks to a park to touch a blade of grass – and she couldn’t do it. So down came the FOR SALE sign and Pennsylvanians we would remain.

I can remember fun filled occasions when my mom’s friends would drive the 3 hours to Pennsylvania with their husbands and kids and spend a few days breathing in the fresh air. So much fun was had. There are countless Poloroids to prove it. As time went by though – visits became less and less until there were really none at all and my parents friends were no longer rooted in NYC – but were now Irish Americans who held their claim to the mother land through great great grandparents who came over on a boat to work the Pennsylvania coal mines. Yes – there was indeed Irish blood – but it’s potency differed from that of my parents and it felt fairly obvious at times.

So Thanksgiving was always small with just the four of us and as much as I hate to say it – it often felt a little lonely. I wondered if my mom and dad’s friends in New York all got together on Thanksgiving and celebrated this American holiday like it was their own – minus the Cronin family. Perhaps they did – but it is more likely that they did not. I do know my parents were the first of their own mini diaspora – because many of their friends eventually scattered to Toms River, Pearl River, the Poconos, and Connecticut -all in groups and all in the same search of fresh air, blades of grass, and really anything that would serve as a little reminder of the land they had all left behind. No one found their way to Scranton, Pennsylvania though.

When I met the man who would eventually become my husband 10 days before Christmas in 2009– I was a little taken aback when he invited me to his sisters house – I was also secretly elated. My four family members were now two. My dad passed away the year before and my brother moved to Ireland several years before that. My mom and I probably spent Thanksgiving that year at a restaurant. I really don’t remember and that’s not meant to be sad. It’s just the way we were. There was never any shortage of places for me to go! I have friends that would have gladly placed a chair at the table for me – and I’d take them up on that offer on occasion- and other times I wouldn’t.

At the same time, I dreamed of this big Irish family with big dinners and lots of laughter. The year my future husband had invited me to Christmas – a dream came true. The dream was not entirely for me. It was for the kids I hoped to have someday – that they would be born into a big, boisterous family with roots from which to grow. I am so happy that is their reality!

So!! I had my own Thanksgiving revelation writing this post. Initially my goal was to share how grateful I am for my in-laws and for the big family I landed in. I truly am blessed to have them. That really goes without saying. But I realized something else…..

I realize that I am mostly thankful for those quiet lonesome Thanksgivings. Without them I would take for granted the beautiful dysfunction that weaves itself through every big holiday gathering. I am thankful that for a long time it was just us – sharing an experience that was strictly ours -because there was a day when we would sit at that table together for the last time. I didn’t know it then. None of us did. Change would come whether we beckoned it or not. I am thankful that this revelation forces me to look at the little faces at my own table now and into the face of my husband and that I am fully aware of how quickly this can all change. I am thankful that, in spite of it all, I would go back to that little table of four in a second – but just for a second – because I have my own table to tend to now.