The Long Christmas Table

Fran recounts her favorite Christmas memories at her grandparents house in Brooklyn — and reflects on what she misses the most.

My memories of food as a child might be of special flavors, but  much of that eating took place at my grandparents long dining table in the basement of their home in Brooklyn.

That table was the centerpiece of life in my mother`s family, and the centerpiece of so many of my most cherished memories.  In 1928, my mother`s parents bought the spacious three story house on the corner of Bay 17th Street and Rutherford Place in Bensonhurst, leaving the cramped confines of the tenements of the Lower East Side to the fresh air of Brooklyn.  There was small backyard, but the house was on a corner , so my grandfather always said the light was best for the plants. By the time I was born in 1950, the fig tree was full and lush, the grape vines twined around the trellis of the yard, and assorted plants, tomatoes, basil,  and others adorned the rest of the small yard.

But inside was a long table, several pieces of wood held together as one. This was what the family was — pieces that came together on a Sunday for food, family and fun.  My grandmother was clearly agoraphobic, since she never left the house to visit any of her children.  They all came to her for the Sunday dinners.  Her six daughters would arrive to prepare the feast. The two brother`s wives helped as well.  Each daughter had a specialty.  One aunt created the perfect rice ball.  Another made a wonderful grain pie.  Others fried meatball, brasciole,and sausages to the right point and then put them in the sauce.  There would be bottles of wine and soda for the children. Loaves of crisp Italian from one of the many Italian bakeries were passed around the table.  The youngest children sat at a smaller table, but their eyes were fixed on the grand, big table for any bit of gossip. After the pasta, the meat and then the desserts, we would have the biscuits and pastries from the stores.

Pots of espresso with bottle of licorice sweet Sambuca were passed around the adults.   The kids would crawl under the long table and hide under the crisp linen cloth.  We might sneak to the bench that was against the wall under the small windows.  Hours would pass as we would eat.  Fresh fruit stayed on the table for hours.  Sometimes , someone would bring a box of Whitman assorted chocolates.  It was fun to look at the diagram and hope to get  your favorite.  With 14 first cousins it was not always easy.

By nightfall, the tablecloth was taken away and the rough worn edges of the table would be exposed.  As the lights closed and we all kissed EVERYONE good night, I would sometimes looks back on the table.  There in the darkness, it seemed to sag without the weight of the food and dishes.  It was as if the family surrounding it buoyed it up and gave it pride.   In 1959 when my grandfather died, there was an empty space without him, but the table kept going until my grandmother`s death in 1969.  Then the house was sold and the table broken to pieces at the curb.  It served us well for all the loyal years we sat around it. The time, then, was scattered at the curb as well. Cousins moved over the bridge to Staten Island; without our grandparents’ ritual, our dinners became scarce. The long, dining table meal was never to be again.