© Copyright 2013 by Sara Jacobelli
Thanksgiving at the Salvation Army
Sunday, November 29, 1981
Well, I am writing in my Notebook again, so of course it is time to write you a letter. I wanted to tell you all about Thanksgiving, which was pretty crazy around here. My Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Martinez, said that you would not know about Thanksgiving because it is an American holiday and they don’t celebrate it in Italy. She also said that those Old Stories about the Pilgrims and the Indians having a Wonderful Party weren’t really true. Well, Thanksgiving is not much, it is usually just one big long meal. I never thought Thanksgiving was so special, we just sat around Starving to Death, waiting for the turkey to be done, and the only thing on TV would be football games.
But Mama and I were talking about how we missed having Thanksgiving at our old apartment on Spain Street. “The best part,” Mama said, smiling, “was how good the house smelled with that delicious turkey cooking.”
“Yeah, yeah, it smelled so good!” Gino said. “I just wanted to eat it all up!” “Me too! Me too!” said Antonietta. Mama and I both laughed, because those kids are skinny as rails but eat nonstop. Mama says they are going to be tall, way taller than me.
So we ended up going to the Salvation Army Thanksgiving Dinner. Mama said she wanted us to have a nice dinner seated at a table. At the Motel, since it’s only one room, we eat dinner sitting on the beds in front of the TV. The Little Kids sit on the floor.
The Salvation Army was pretty Depressing. They didn’t have any decorations or music or TV or anything. The turkey was OK, but we all agreed it was nothing like Mama’s. They had some nasty looking canned beets that we didn’t eat. Plus we missed Papa, he refused to come. He said that, “Sicilians don’t take hand-outs.” While we ate our dinner, Mama explained that this wasn’t a hand-out. “One day, we’ll be Back On Our Feet. And we’ll cook a big turkey and all the trimmings, and bring it here for other families to enjoy.”
“Well, if we do that,” I said. “Will we make one for us too? In our own house?”
“Honey, of course,” Mama said.
“Can we bake them some cakes too?” Antonietta asked. “The kids would like cake for dessert. CHOCOLATE cake.”
“And pumpkin pies with whipped cream,” Gino said. “They’d like that. I know I would.”
The Salvation Army didn’t have much for dessert, only some dry cookies with yucky powdered milk. Mama looked around the crowded room. “So many families here, I’m surprised.”
“Are they all poor like us, Mama?” I asked.
“Dani, don’t say that. Your father would have a fit. And WE ARE NOT POOR. And don’t talk with your mouth full, Young Lady.”
“If we ain’t poor, why we eating here then?” Gino asked.
Mama gave him That Look. That Look meant she would slap his face if there weren’t so many people around. She lowered her voice. “Kids, don’t be rude. These people here ARE poor, but we are NOT. We’re just, just. . .we’re just Down On Our Luck right now.”
She stood up. “Now wipe your faces, and let’s go see Papa.”
The buses were running slow since it was Thanksgiving, so we walked from Downtown to the Quarter to meet Papa at the Bar.
We went to the Bastille Bar on Toulouse and Bourbon where Papa likes to hang out with his friends. Back when we had our car, Dinah-Saur, Papa used to park the car in front of the Bar on Toulouse Street in the afternoons. Us kids would wait for him in the car. Today we all went in because it was Thanksgiving. They had a little table set up with paper plates and plastic forks and plastic knives and napkins. There was turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy and green beans.
Papa drank whiskey and Mama drank vodka with cranberry. (Mama snuck me some sips of her drink). They danced and kissed and got silly. Me and Gino and Antonietta chased around the long narrow bar with Mama’s friends’ kids. There were two little dark haired boys, Damian and Darius, that belonged to her friend Angie. Mama says that those boys “are wild just like their father.” Their father, Mario, is in prison, and the grown-ups always say that he is, “Doing Time on the Installment Plan.” There was her friend Tootsie’s daughter, Dakota, who is thirteen, one year older than me. Mama always says that Tootsie let Dakota “grow up too fast.” Dakota does seem to know a lot of stuff about the Grown up World, more than me, that’s for sure.
There was a nice lady there, named Jeanie. She did most of the cooking. Jeanie gave me a hug, like she always does. “Girlfriend, lemme look at you. You are so gorgeous. You remind me so much of my Casey.” She puffed on her cigarette, gulped her Dixie beer and looked at me, smiling, as if I was some kind of Miracle. Mama says Jeanie left her four kids back in Mississippi. Her husband beat her and Jeanie didn’t have any way to take the kids. So she took a Greyhound bus and came to New Orleans all Alone. Now Jeanie bartends at Skid Row Bars down around Camp Street, where all her male customers are in love with her. She lives with a huge Georgia Redneck guy called Dumptruck. He always smells sweaty and wears Overalls.
The Fun Part was when Earl the Bartender gave me a bunch of quarters and I got to punch in songs for Mama and Papa on the Jukebox. They both like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones so I picked out some of those. Plus Papa likes Brick House by the Commodores and Mama likes the Harlem Shuffle. ( I don’t remember who made that song). Plus I like We Are Family by Sister Sledge.
That night, we had to take a United Cab all the way back to the Motel on Airline Highway. Mama said it’s too far from everything, so next week we are going to get a Motel room on Tulane Avenue. “So we can visit your father when he goes to jail,” Mama said, laughing.
“Mama, stop,” I said. I was scared that Papa would hit her. The Little Kids were already asleep. I was surprised that Papa didn’t pay much attention. That’s not like him. He seemed distracted. When we got to the Motel, he dropped us off and said he was going to go play cards. Then he took off in the taxi.
Mama and I walked the Sleepy Kids up the stairs and into the Room. They were so funny, they walked and mumbled but they were still Asleep. We let them sleep in the bed with their clothes on.
Mama let me lay down in the bed with her. She said Papa would be out All Night anyway. We watched TV. She touched my hair. “Honey, it’s not the Best Life for you, is it?” she asked.
“What do you mean, Mama?” I sat up, propped comfy against my pillows and Antonietta’s Stuffed Animals.
“The Motel, the Salvation Army, Thanksgiving in a Bar. Drunk Parents.” Mama shook her head. “We’re not setting you a Good Example.” She looked around for her cigarettes.
“Mama, I’m happy. They’re happy.” I pointed to my brother and sister. “”Just as long as you guys aren’t Fighting.”
Mama squinted at the TV. She’s near-sighted, like me, but never wears her glasses.
“Oh, this is the movie, that Jimmy Stewart movie, that one I love, with Harvey, the Invisible Rabbit.” Mama lit her cigarette, and we watched the movie, huddled on the bed like sisters.
“I love it, too. I love Harvey. Harvey is his Best Friend,” I said. “And Everyone Else should just leave them Alone.”
Papa would never let me get in their bed with them. I was so glad he wasn’t there, and the kids were sleeping. And I had Mama all to myself. I pretended that we were Twin Sisters, or Two Best Friends, or maybe Two College Roommates. And we didn’t need anyone or anything else to Make Us Happy.
Buonna Notte, Cara Nonna
Ti amo, ti bacio, mi manchi
Photo Credit: “Jimmy Stewart, Harvey with a Sherlock Hat,” by I hear of Sherlock Everywhere.
“Harvey,” 1950. Jimmy Stewart. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042546/
“Brick House,” by the Commodores. 1977.
“We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge. 1979.