Memories of “turkey day,” aka Thanksgiving, from my childhood are sketchy. Perhaps that’s because they weren’t anything to “crow” about. Up until I was around age 12 or 13, we traveled up the Jersey Turnpike to spend the day with Dad’s maternal relatives in Northern New Jersey, the Zuckermans. Instead of “turkey day,” let’s call Thanksgiving “a turkey of a day.”
Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the trip was arduous. Traffic on the Jersey Turnpike was horrible, as it was a two-lane highway. Today, the turnpike turns into three lanes around Exit 5. Further north, it divides into truck/bus and passenger car only lanes. In the event of an accident, motorists are less likely to get stuck in a back-up. Back then, that wasn’t the case.
We usually drove up and back on the same day, Thursday. Why didn’t we stay overnight to avoid traffic? Perhaps Dad wanted to open his business the next day, as Thanksgiving weekend was a precursor to the lucrative holiday shopping season. Therefore, he was probably uptight before we even left Baltimore.
Who were the Zuckermans? They were Dad’s maternal family of five siblings and their extended families. Most lived in Northern New Jersey; a few lived across the Hudson River in New York. They rarely, if ever, came to Baltimore when I was a child. Therefore, we saw them once a year.
I have vague memories of Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Estie and Uncle Mac’s house in Jersey City. They lived on a tree-lined street; the house was attached to others, like brownstones in New York. The other memory I have is dinner at Cousin Anita’s house in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. This might have been the last New Jersey Thanksgiving get-together. More about Anita later.
Aunt Estie was one of Grandma’s sisters. I don’t remember what she looked like, nor do I have a photo of her. As a matter of fact, I don’t have any photos of the Zuckermans. This is somewhat surprising since I have a slew of photos of my grandfather’s siblings. What about Uncle Mac? I remember a short, portly man with suspenders to hold up his pants. I picture him as a shorter Jackie Gleason.
Next were Aunt Hattie (another sister) and Uncle Max. Aunt Hattie was “chirpy.” Grandma and she chirped away! She was also the cheek pincher if memory serves me right. She’s the aunt you wanted to avoid! Uncle Max was more or less in the background, quiet.
Grandma had a third sister, Helen, who died before I was born. I don’t know her married name or her husband’s name. Very strange, especially since I was named for her.
The last sibling, Herbert, was known as “Uncle Herbert—wink, wink” because he was only six or seven years older than my father. Therefore, “Uncle Herbert” was a contemporary to Dad, not so much an “uncle.” His wife was Helen (a lot of Helens in this family.) When I think of Uncle Herbert, I think of Phil Silvers. That’s who he resembled.
Dad’s First Cousins
Unlike Dad’s paternal relatives, the Zuckerman siblings had small families — one to two children maximum. (Though neither my sister nor I know who Anita’s parents were. Margo doesn’t even remember Anita.* Maybe she was Estie and Mac daughter? If so, one Zuckerman sibling had three kids.)
Estie and Mac’s children whom I remember were Jerry and Sandra. They were 10-15 years younger than Dad, as was Anita. Jerry was the black sheep. He might have been divorced and remarried. A shanda (scandal)! Did he have kids? Maybe. Who remembers? He was always in trouble, though, with the law or into some shady scheme. No one talked about him too much!
On the other hand, I distinctly remember Sandra and her husband David. She was short, with a round face, and always pleasant. David was tall and thin, with thick, bushy, black hair and a thick, bushy, black mustache. He was handsome in an Omar Sharif kind of way. He was always soft spoken and friendly.
Hattie and Max’s only child, Leonard, was close to Dad. Aunt Hattie and Grandma spent summers at the Jersey Shore with Dad and Leonard. I distinctly remember Leonard’s wife Rita, who had a very thick New York accent. Year’s later, Leonard and his son Danny were in a bad car accident and Leonard sustained a brain injury. He was never the same afterwards.
Helen had two daughters, Gladys and Alice. Gladys was very close with Dad, even as an adult, and frequently kept in touch with me after Mom died. Her sister, Alice, was another story. She “not quite right” and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized a few times and was on and off “new” psychotropic drugs in the 1960s. Her husband was supposedly a nice fellow who tried to deal with his wife’s illness. They ended up divorced, however, as Alice was never very compliant with her medications. The situation became unbearable for him and the children, and he had sole custody of the kids.
One of my last memories of Alice is at Anita’s house in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. I recall Alice walking around, in her own world, talking and laughing, and quite an embarrassment to her daughter, Carol. At some point, Gladys took over Alice’s care, and in later years they lived near each other in Albany.
Last, but not least, was Herbert and Helen’s son, Bobby. Even though he was Dad’s first cousin, he was six or seven years older than me. We didn’t have much of a connection. I do remember going to his wedding in Philadelphia with my sister Laura. It was held in a Reform temple that looked like a church. I think he became a psychiatrist or maybe a psychologist. Another family mystery never to be solved.
Why was Thanksgiving such a chore for me and my sisters? Let’s blame the girl second cousins, Helen, Debbie (siblings), Susan and Carol (she was nice, actually). Add my two sisters and me, we were seven female Zuckerman second cousins within six to seven years of each other. Therefore, before and after the Thanksgiving meal, we were thrown together and expected to “play.”
Being nice to us must have been a nightmare for them. We were the “hick” cousins from Baltimore. They were sophisticated New York/New Jersey gals. Plus, they saw each other on other holidays, so they had established friendships.
Interestingly, one-on-one, they weren’t bad. I spent some time with Susan when she came to Baltimore with her parents. We got along fine. One summer, Mom, Dad and I drove to Jamaica Queens, New York to visit Gladys and her family. Debbie, who was closer to my age than her sister Helen, and I had a nice time. But as a “gang of four” the female second cousins weren’t welcoming. We were outsiders.
The End of an Era
By the late 1960s, we no longer got together with the Zuckermans for Thanksgiving. The last get-together was at my parents’ house. Why did we stop? I’m not sure but I suspect that when the older generation died off, Dad’s generation didn’t want the hassle. Some of them didn’t keep kosher, so that would have been problematic for those of us who did. Knowing Mom, she didn’t want to cook for 30+ people every year and was unwilling to host more than that one time.
Thanksgiving became an immediate family holiday, with my parents, Laura and her family and us, the Creegers. My in-laws were also invited. We had a nice, congenial crowd, with everyone getting along and with no tears or tantrums!
What is especially sad about this story is the fact that my sister and I have lost all contact with the Zuckerman relatives. Dad’s first cousins are probably all gone—maybe Bobby is still alive, as he’d be in his mid-70s. My parents stayed in touch with cousins Leonard and Gladys, and I remember Sandra and her husband David visiting Baltimore a time or two. Mom always sent Rosh Hashanah cards to family and friends but after she died, the only cousins who stayed in touch by phone were Gladys and Leonard’s wife, Rita.
And as written above, Grandma didn’t have photos of her family. Maybe they were taken but the copies never made it to Baltimore. A few Facebook searches by me didn’t find anyone. Not knowing anyone’s married names is an obstacle as well.
In essence, a huge part of me is missing. What a “turkey of a day.”
*Anita’s husband, Norton, was “wealthy.” He might have been “a player” on Wall Street or something like that. I do remember that their house in Englewood Cliffs was quite posh. Years later, they were in Baltimore for the Preakness. It seems that Norton owned part of one of the racehorses! I think they retired to Florida, and that’s where their story ends.
Read more by Eileen Creeger.