In my memory, Grandma’s house is really big. It sits on a hill in the West Price Hill section of Cincinnati with at least 20 concrete steps from the road up to the porch. The front door opens into a main living room, dining room, and kitchen, a steep staircase leads up to the bedrooms and bathroom, and an equally steep set of stairs descends to the basement and garage.
I now know that the house was actually small (less than 1200 square feet) and very narrow. But from the time I was born in 1950 until my mid-teens, somewhere between 15 and 30 family members gathered noisily at my Grandma and Grandpa Coyle’s house for Thanksgiving. Mom and Dad showed up with the first two grandchildren, me and my sister Christine, and then later with my little brother Tom. Mom’s four younger brothers were there with girlfriends, then wives, then an ever -expanding number of children … about 13 of them (added to our three) by the mid-60’s. Did I mention we were Catholics?
I remember the smell of roasting turkeys (at least two of them) and the sound of silverware clattering as Grandma and the women prepared the stuffing, potatoes, green beans, corn, gravy, biscuits and desserts – all from scratch. I remember the loud voices of the men as they watched football on television, drank liquor and snacked on pretzels and potato chips. As the years went by, the commotion of babies crying and young kids running up and down the stairs added to the chaos.
It always seemed to take way too long for Grandma to call us to her huge dining room table. Having smelled the food cooking and salivating for what seemed like hours and hours, we were ready to eat and hurried Grandma to finish the Thanksgiving prayer.
Once the food was passed around – the turkey piled high and everything else in large steaming bowls – the noise level went down considerably as we dug into the feast. There was always plenty of food for everyone, and more than enough for leftovers later that night.
Grandma is the best cook in the world, I thought.
Actually, she wasn’t. Grandma only cooked “basic” food – food her mama taught her to make as she was growing up in what she called the “hills of Kentucky.” Nothing fancy, not many spices, no decorative touches … just good, old-fashioned turkey, stuffing and “all the fixins.” Simple but delicious. And dessert? Her pumpkin and apple pies, made from scratch and bubbling hot as they came directly from the oven, made our mouths water. (Later in her life, she was the cook for the priests and nuns at Saint William Church, who got to appreciate them too.)
I have many images and memories of Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house, but five of them stand out from all the rest.
Story #1: Little Cathy pees on the floor. My dad loved to tell this one. Apparently, when I was about 2 ½ years old, in the middle of Thanksgiving food preparations, I didn’t get something I wanted. According to Dad, and other witnesses including my uncles, I got mad, stomped my foot, cried and peed on the dining room floor – deliberately. I got swatted, Dad said and “…that’s when I knew she was going to be a pistol!”Story #2: Uncle Jim, Whiskey, and a Toaster. My uncle Jim, who never married, worked for GE, played softball in an adult league and lived with Grandma and Grandpa until his early death, was like a big kid. He didn’t watch football or hang out with his brothers and my dad. Instead, he played with his nieces and nephews. On Thanksgiving, he would sneak “cocktails” to us — 7 and 7’s, made with 7-Up and what probably amounted to less than a teaspoon of Seagram’s Seven whiskey. We went along with the game, giggling and promising not to tell our parents (who of course knew what he was doing). I especially remember the year when one of us got up the nerve to ask Uncle Jim what happened to his right hand. We were fascinated by the fact that he was missing a couple of his fingers (from birth, we found out later). In a low conspiratorial voice, he told us that he stuck it in a toaster when he was a little boy. We were horrified! I don’t know about my cousins, but I never looked at a toaster in the same way from that day on.
Story #3: Christine rushed to the ER. My sister Christine, one year older than me, was mentally retarded (or mentally challenged, as it’s called these days). At seven years old, she always seemed to get herself into trouble. That year, with Mom, Grandma and the other women preparing food in the kitchen, Chris took a glass of juice outside on the concrete porch. Somehow the glass broke and cut her hand. Blood was everywhere. She was screaming. The cousins were screaming. Grandma and Mom rushed out with kitchen towels to wrap up her hand as Dad scooped her up and drove her to the emergency room (911 wasn’t around in those days). He brought her home a couple of hours later with stitches in her hand and thumb and her arm in a sling. The glass had cut a tendon and muscle at the base of her lower thumb – a thumb she still can’t use to this day. Although we had Thanksgiving dinner, it was later than usual and a whole lot quieter.
Story #4: The Sacred Heart of Jesus and my Great Grandmother Brinegar. Grandma Coyle was a devout Catholic. Hanging above the TV in her living room was a large framed picture of Jesus with long flowing hair, penetrating eyes and a glowing heart wrapped in thorns. It is an iconic picture in the Catholic religion.
As kids, it was hard to even think about being bad with that picture staring down at us. To make things worse, Grandma’s mother — Great Grandma Brinegar — sometimes joined the family at Thanksgiving when she wasn’t at one of her other five children’s homes. She didn’t like little kids and would sit on the opposite side of the room dressed in a long skirt and old sweater, her braided hair hanging down her back and her hand gripping a walking cane. She would stare at us as if to say “Just try doing something wrong”. Jesus on one side of the room and Great Grandma Brinegar on the other made the living room an uncomfortable place to play. The kitchen and dining room were off limits, we weren’t allowed upstairs and the basement was too scary. We would often head to the small backyard even in the coldest late November weather.
Story #5: Grandpa the Gangster. I grew up knowing what my dad and my uncles did for a living. But I never knew what my Grandpa Coyle did, even though I always suspected that it was something unusual. He was an introverted man, he seemed pre-occupied much of the time and he died young of emphysema after years of cigarette smoking. One Thanksgiving, when I was old enough to begin to understand, I overheard the men talking about Grandpa doing the books. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean he was an accountant. He was, it turned out, a bookie. I later learned that he would gather his “boys” around that same Thanksgiving table to figure the payout to winners and to dole out everyone’s cut of the action. My mom would rarely talk about it, but she once told my brother that a car’s tires squealed around the corner one day when she was a little girl and Grandpa “threw” her back into the house “just in case”.
All in all, my memories of Thanksgiving in the 50’s are great ones. I loved my Grandma Coyle and she seemed to “fancy” me (as she would have put it). I loved the smells and the tastes of Thanksgiving food. I loved leftovers. I loved watching my dad watch football on TV and joke around with my uncles. I loved seeing my mom and grandma working together in the kitchen. I loved my Uncle Jim and the sneaky 7 and 7 drinks he gave me with that little splash of whiskey.
But mostly, I just loved the feeling of belonging to the family. Even with my Gangsta Grandpa!