Thanksgiving Dinner with Barney
The pandemic has caused my wife and me to re-examine what, in my family, has alternately been labeled 1) “Dad’s Favorite Holiday,” 2) a painful experience, or 3) a humongous pain in the ass.
Thanksgiving in the Rosenzweig household on the East Side of Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s, fell under the category of “a painful experience.” My mother was a terrible cook and my dad’s repertoire (pretty much like my own) was limited to doctoring up left-overs. That meant for the holiday we would eat out… something we did at least five out of the seven nights of any ordinary week.
The restaurant selected was at best non-starred and, more often than not, a mob scene with dishes all but being hurled out of the kitchen to the unhappy, but compliant clientele. Our “family table,” that had once consisted of only our tiny threesome, grew as the 40s dragged on to include my newly arrived baby brother and two warring grandmothers. The tension at that tiny table was palpable. The impatient waitress and the restaurant’s noisy ambiance did not help. Small wonder that for most of my life I have been hooked on antacids. I am sure my reflux had its beginnings at one of those holiday feasts.
I do not remember much about Thanksgiving during the decade of my first marriage. I am sure Joni and I did something to celebrate, but it would not… could not… have been much. I suppose I was still in recovery from Thanksgivings’ past. Whatever we did probably included my newly acquired in-laws… again, at a restaurant. The eatery picked by my mother-in-law was no doubt of higher caliber than those of my childhood years, but it seemed no better equipped at handling the horde that would descend come early afternoon the fourth Thursday of any November of the 1960s.
I was a bachelor for pretty much all of the 70s between marriage number one and marriage number two, so Thanksgiving either didn’t happen (once I think I repeated one of those restaurant scenes with my parents and grandmothers only to realize that once was one too many) or I was the stray who would be invited to the home of a friend.
It was not until marriage number two that the Thanksgiving holiday changed for me. Barbara and her mother really knew how to throw a terrific family dinner party. My kids would have Thanksgiving with their mother and stepdad across town while I was happily one of the dozen members of my new spouse’s family, including Barbara’s uncle, the world-famous jazz drummer, Buddy Rich.
Buddy had begun his career in Vaudeville at the age of three, appearing as Traps, The Wonder Boy. From that early age until he was rooming with Frank Sinatra while they toured with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Buddy was pretty much the sole means of support for his parents, his younger brother and his two sisters. He was one of my favorite people…ever…a terrific guy, a great musician, and a colorful raconteur. I mention him in this context since one of the most poignant things I have ever heard was something said at our Thanksgiving dinner table in Hancock Park: Buddy turned to his older sister (my then mother-in-law) and asked… in all seriousness…“Did I ever want to play the drums?”
Let that resonate.
Barbara was going to write Buddy’s life-story and call it TRAPS, with the double entendre intended. I don’t think she ever did write that book, but I wish she would.
Ten years after our wedding day, the marriage with Barbara had been over for nearly a year. Nevertheless, when Thanksgiving came around my ex and her mother generously invited me to join them. They knew, no matter what else had transpired, how much I loved those family dinners. My memory is that I only accepted the one time … well, maybe two … but then I was off to my new life as Sharon’s husband.
I think there was one Thanksgiving meal at Sharon’s brother’s home and another at her cousin’s before Sharon and I decided to make our own and eventually expand our family to include my first wife and her husband, our three children and their three children (the grandkids), plus Sharon’s two brothers their wives, and their children (Sharon’s four nephews and one niece). My brother and his wife joined the group and then my first wife and I began to co-host the event so that her brother and his kids could be included. We would take over a private banquet hall in a hotel in Palm Springs or in Pasadena … there would be at least three in help and multiple birds to be carved table side.
Both Sharon and I were working, the dollars were flowing, I would hold court at the head of the table, and the whole thing was very grand. It was around this time that Thanksgiving got labeled “Dad’s Favorite Holiday.”
And so it was for several years. Thanksgiving dinner grew to near three dozen celebrants. Then we began to downsize… the younger members of the family began to assert themselves. They now had homes of their own and were eager to return to basics, to the kind of family dinners I had remembered during marriage number two.
So, Sharon and I made an adjustment: I “got” Thanksgiving with my side of the family and she “got” Christmas with hers. Thanksgiving was now my extended family: First wife Joni, our daughters, the grandkids, Joni’s husband, Miles, their son Jason, his wife Jill, a couple of cousins from Joni’s side of the family plus Sharon and me. The kids did all the cooking, all the preparations, everything. All I had to do was sit back, watch, and enjoy… until Covid-19 came along.
Today Sharon and I are sequestered in our home on beautiful Fisher Island, just off the coast of Miami’s famed South Beach. The rest of the family are all in California. The Coronavirus lockdown in LA is more severe than the one in Miami, but Miami still has us being plenty cautious. The Thanksgiving dinners will therefore be multiple. Each of my girls will have their own and we will, I am told, somehow gather by Zoom.
Sharon seemed concerned about my feelings and “Dad’s Favorite Holiday.” We sat down to talk about our options: every venue on our Island was featuring some kind of special Thanksgiving experience… whether at the Beach Club, the Mansion, The Golf Grille, The Trattoria or at the Italian restaurant known for fine dining. Each chef has his own “take” … each venue its own special presentation. Sharon wanted to know my preference and as I thought about it, I said, “y’know, without the kids being here, the only other part of Thanksgiving I ever really loved was the left-overs. What do you say we get a loaf of white bread, some mayonnaise, a turkey breast and just ‘cut to the chase’ and settle in with the good stuff?”
…And that is what we are gonna do.
Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! Like all of you, I have so much for which to be thankful.
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Stewart and I had our first date, a blind date no less, on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. That year, I had Thanksgiving dinner with my immediate family (parents and two younger brothers) and a bunch of relatives who had no other place to go. Stewart, whom I had not yet met, had Thanksgiving dinner with his family. Maybe that’s why when he asked me out, more like “It’s a beautiful day. So why don’t you come over to my apartment. We can take a walk in Central Park. And bring some Thanksgiving dinner leftovers with you to add to mine. We can have a feast after our walk.” I agreed. And it rained. We didn’t take that walk! And to this day, like Barney, we, too, ‘cut to the chase’ and settle in with the good stuff!
Dena Stewart & Stewart Stewart, Alive on South Beach