In the fall of 1979, I was the only kid in Mrs. Locker’s 4th grade class who did not have a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. I know this for a fact, because our homework assignment for Thanksgiving weekend was to write a descriptive essay about our family’s Thanksgiving dinner, and when we returned to school on Monday, each child took a turn reading aloud the essay about his or her family’s dinner. As student after student talked about the juicy turkeys and scrumptious stuffings that their families had enjoyed, I shrank deeper and deeper into my seat, dreading my turn. Finally, I experienced a brief reprieve; Jenny Bongiorno went to the front of the room and started talking about her family’s lasagna. “Yes!” I thought, “finally! I am not THE ONLY ONE who did not have turkey!” No sooner did that thought cross my mind, than Jenny’s family had finished the lasagna, which turned out to be merely an appetizer, and here she was, telling us how her mom brought out, you guessed it, the turkey.
I recall, actually, being surprised that everyone had eaten the exact same thing -- I guess I had not realized in my nine years on the planet, until that moment, that everyone ate turkey on Thanksgiving. I guess my mom, who had been living in the country only about 16 years at that point, had not yet mastered the art of cooking a turkey. Rather than subjecting us to her trial-and-error, she had decided to make a duck on that particular Thanksgiving. I don’t remember whether the duck was good or not, I pretty much only remember that I really hadn’t thought that there was anything wrong or unusual about having a duck on Thanksgiving, until that one, mortifying moment in class when I had to walk up to the front of the room, and tell all of my classmates all about it.
That was, somehow, only the second most embarrassing moment of my elementary school career. . . .
The first-prize anecdote in that particular category is the story of when my first grade teacher, Mrs. Berman, challenged us to find words that did not contain the letters a, e, i, o, u, or y. There weren’t any, she claimed, and sent us out to find out for ourselves. Well, I went home and told my father about this assignment. “Of course there are,” he said. “There are many words that don’t have any vowels.” He proceeded to write out a list of about twenty words on a piece of paper. I didn’t recognize any of them but then again, I was six, there were lots of words I didn’t know. So the next day, I proudly showed off my list to my teacher. She looked at me blankly. “These are not real words,” was all she said. When I repeated her critique to my father, he responded, “of course these are real words. They are Polish words.”
For the most part, though, notwithstanding these two turkeys of incidents, as a child, I didn’t really feel different from most of my classmates. In my Staten Island elementary and junior high schools, there were many children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants. Later, in my magnet commuter high school in Manhattan, it seemed like almost everyone had either parents or grandparents from another country -- China, Ireland, Korea, Columbia, Haiti, Japan, Poland, Russia. Having parents from another country did not make me feel different or special in any way. My father used to complain that I was embarrassed of him because of his accent – what he didn’t seem to understand was that in high school, it was embarrassing just to have parents (rather than, I suppose, being hatched in a sterile lab somewhere). I really had not even realized at that time, at least not consciously, that he had an accent.
Ironically, it was not until I arrived at a small, and very liberal, liberal arts college that people began making a big deal of my background. “Wooooowwww, so you’re first generation American!” I remember one schoolmate cooing. “How diverse you are!” was the somewhat ridiculous, P.C. subtext.
There are small differences, like not having read all of the same stories as other kids -- I had never heard of Where the Wild Things Are or Free to Be You and Me. I always called all the adults in my family’s social circle by their first names only, and it still shocks me just a little bit each time the nieces and nephew that I acquired by marriage address me as “Aunt.” When I talk to the now-adult children of my parents’ Polish Jewish immigrant friends and relatives, we commiserate about the little ways that our families were wacky and different from everyone else, such as the huge group vacations that we all used to take, 20 or so families together in a mini-commune in the Catskills every summer, or the Polish and Russian words that were part of our everyday vocabulary, like “dupa” and "durak"(you can google-translate that).
But I was born in New York, grew up in New York, and have lived almost all of my adult life in New York, and I feel mostly like a New Yorker.