A Quilt? A Stew? Who Are We, Anyway?

By Linda Arking


Originally published November, 2002. Republished November 5, 2012.

Sometimes I think we are a family in search of a metaphor. When we gather at the extended table we use for Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking, Who are we? How’d we all end up together, anyway? The fact is, I love this holiday — love it, because it forces right up to the top level of consciousness, right up where you can’t avoid seeing it, what a wildly assorted bunch of intermarrieds we are. My extended family (cousins, in-laws included) springs from three different religions (four, if you count my nephew’s Buddhism; more, if you subdivide further a few variations of Protestantism) as well as eight or nine hyphenated ethnicities. Our bloodlines make an atlas encircling the globe and our birthplaces bestride the continent, sea to sea.

But viewing people with so many differences sitting around the table highlights something else: the unity of our ties to each other and to our country. Maybe it’s the threat of war this year, maybe it’s the assault on our nation’s open way of life, but I find myself more mindful than ever — more grateful than ever — for the underlying yearnings and values that have led such oddly assorted people to become embedded in each other’s lives.

When I was single, in my twenties, I lived in Europe for five years and there is no way I’d be able to explain, much less duplicate, there the sort of wholesale mixing on display here in my dining room. For me, it boils down to this: even if I’d married and stayed in Italy, say, for the rest of my life, I know I’d never have been considered an Italian. Yet here we are around the table, dramatically different, equally American. I find that fact incredibly moving this year, and whether the metaphor is a crazy quilt of patches bound together with common threads, or a stew which has stubbornly not become creamed into a smooth monotone soup, my intermarried family is truly that: a family. Intermarriage itself gives our family its identity. And it seems that simple fact dictates all the rest.

Let’s start with the table. Our differences are reflected in what would otherwise appear to be a frighteningly dysfunctional menu. Again, we’re multiethnic, and in a country as big as the United States, that means “a few family favorites” represent a sprawling road map of inherited recipes. But what can we do? We try to stick to traditional dishes, but the feast ends up reflecting our assorted family roots. The turkey, if we’re lucky, comes from my sister-in-law’s brother’s farm in Pennsylvania. Her people, German Lutherans, still farm the land near the Alleghenies that they settled in the 1800s. Then come the fun dishes. Besides turkey, we have Mexican enchiladas, which my husband, a seventh-generation Los Angles native, remembers from Thanksgivings with Aunt Juanita and Uncle Ernesto. (He also remembers his dad Hernaldo roasting the family turkey on the outdoor barbecue. As for the enchiladas, I consider that delicious recipe part of my husband’s dowry, his family’s gift to me, the East Coast bride.) For my part, I contribute the Middle Eastern rice, which my Yiddish-inflected mother cooked every single day as her concession to my Syrian Jewish father.

Besides Syrian rice, we have Yankee-style creamed onions; this, from my younger brother’s wife, Donna, who spent childhood summers in the old family house, a former fisherman’s place, on Cape Ann. When Donna’s Gramps re-married in his eighties, his new wife brought into the family a 400-year-old house that had figured in the Salem witch trials. The sunnier side of this heritage is that Donna’s family could dine on fresh lobster just by stepping out the door, so our meal today may start off with an homage in the form of New England seafood.

What else? Challah, and my sister’s homemade whole-grain bread. And speaking of my sister, last year she arrived with a tin-foil-wrapped “nut loaf” for her computer-programmer son, who’d called from Seattle before flying home to tell her that he’d become a vegan. Other items on the table recall the legacy of my late mother-in-law, Florence, whose mixed parentage included a French-Canadian mother. From my husband’s grandmere, Florence inherited not so much a love of certain foods, but instead a lifelong appreciation of “refinements” — fresh flowers, candles, yearnings for a harmonious atmosphere. Today, we’ll use the sterling place settings she purchased on the installment plan back when she was a young, Depression-era bride with dreams (only dreams) of making a gracious home for her still-unborn family. (The sixty-five-year-old magazine ad for the silverware still lies lovingly folded inside its wood chest.)

And once seated, what do we do at the table besides eat? Well, for starters, we talk about the food. Actually, that’s not true; we start out by going around the table individually, as everyone describes some event during the past year he or she is grateful for. Daniel’s cancer scare was just a false alarm; Aunt Charlotte got a clean bill of health; Richard is glad we’re not at war. A diploma; a marriage; new kittens. Obviously, we adults hope the children absorb the habit of counting their blessings, but it’s hard to count them if you don’t get in the habit of saying what they are.

Of course, the meal itself reminds us of our wildly different backgrounds. My daughter’s four grandparents came from the Ottoman Empire, the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution), Spanish California and the Lower East Side of New York via the Russian Pale. My husband’s Mexican Catholic forbears were among the first settlers of Los Angeles in the 1770s; my Protestant sister-in-law’s people were original north-of-Boston Yankees. (Thus, we point out year after year, their families were among the first pioneers to settle each coast.)

Nearly all our immigrant stories involve a search for religious freedom. The foods act as “prompters,” and by reviewing our histories for the children at the table, we adults are reminded that we’re able to gather in this way only because of the religious freedom and tolerance we enjoy as Americans. We need to be honest; our individual backgrounds remain precious to us. In my case, my Judaism is vital to me, and I rejoice in the strength of our daughter’s Jewish education and identity. At the same time, America’s openness to diversity and its emphasis on individual freedom have enormous appeal to us personally, which is precisely why we have made the intermarrying choices we have.

Television and sports are pretty much ignored on this day, and after dessert, we go for a much-needed walk. Our town (pop. 4,500) is an historic Connecticut river town, first settled in 1635, and strolling past the white picket fences and stone walls, it’s hard not to think of ourselves as outsiders, even as polyglot “foreigners.” Our neighbor, Jeff, across the street, is a Midwestern transplant, and after thirty years in town, he’s now president of the Deep River Historical Society. I once said to him, “I guess this makes you pretty much a native, right?” “Nope,” he replied. “No kinfolk in the cemetery yet.” Jeff and his wife, like nearly all our neighbors, are pillars of the local Congregational church, the big white one facing the town green. Congregationalists, fittingly, are descendants of the Puritans. (But wait, history’s never simple. Our town’s Puritans weren’t the familiar Plymouth or Boston ones, no! Ours are descended from the Cromwell Puritans, who founded the Saybrook Colony because… oh, it gets complicated; never mind!)

Anyway, after visiting at Jeff’s, we’ll pass our next-door neighbors’ house where Cyndy and Paul (who met in grade school) are facing one of the most difficult Thanksgiving days in their lives: their nineteen-year old son Brian enlisted in the Marines two months before 9-11. If war comes this winter, we can assume Brian will be deployed. They don’t expect to see him again for at least ten months. For now, a Marine Corps flag waves proudly outside the house. We’ll stop by, maybe have more pie; for awhile, we’re not outsiders, not at all. Later, we’ll attend an evening service at their church where seemingly half the town will pray for the safety of Brian and all our troops.

This year, Hanukkah begins the day after Thanksgiving, so the oven won’t have much chance to rest. (The turkey comes out, the pot roast goes in.) And while Team A does the dishes, Team B will be grating potatoes for latkes (fried potato pancakes). This year, our kitchen will serve up many flavors, many thoughts: war, religious freedom, celebration, tolerance. Everything matters, everything counts.

No wonder, then, that Thanksgiving is the holiday which most gloriously resonates with our multifaceted identity. And how ironic, too, that a holiday recalling Puritans — they, so orthodox and strait-laced — is for us today such a blatant celebration of our joyous diversity.

About Linda Arking

Linda Arking, during the last 20 years has written fiction and feature articles for the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, and has written a series of articles on family and parenting issues for Family Life and Family Circle among many others. Concerned with Jewish continuity, the Arking-Avila family chose Humanistic Judaism as a way to actively participate in Jewish life, to celebrate their heritage, to educate their daughter, and to help her build a lasting connection to the Jewish world.