A Thanksgiving story | Opinion

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Gail Deily Menzel, now a mother, grandmother and soon to be great-grandmother, has so many memories about growing up in Jersey City. Among them are memories of Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday.

By Gail Deily Menzel

Growing up in Jersey City in the 1940′s, I thought I had all a kid could want — an army of friends around my age on my block, Woodlawn Avenue in Jersey City.

I didn’t know it then, but I was part of a rich children’s culture. We played stickball in the street, calling “timeout” for the odd passing car; stoopball on the steep brick steps of Judy Lerner’s house, where we also competed to see who could leap off the highest step to a knee-numbing landing on the concrete (Margie Breuninger was unbeatable among the girls, Hunter Garbee among the boys) and played hopscotch on squares we drew on the sidewalk with anthracite lumps that fell off coal delivery trucks.

World War II inspired our games — we played “war,” the boys as soldiers, the girls as nurses caring for the wounded. We patrolled our territory on roller skates and ventured even further on bikes; trucked our Flexible Flyers to the neighborhood’s premier sliding hill after a good packing snow where we waited in line to “belly-whop” to the bottom, trudging back up again repeatedly until darkness fell.

Our “play clothes” consisted of dungarees (jeans was a word foreign to our lexicon) paired with an oversized shirt passed down from our fathers, worn untucked, grazing the knees. We girls all had “manikins,” foot-tall plaster figures of adult women, smaller versions of the clothing models in store windows, sporting the hand-sewn garments we made from fabric scraps our mothers gave us.

The knife sharpener visited the neighborhood once a month, swinging a bell to announce his services. Ice was still being delivered to homes with iceboxes in the 40′s by a horse-drawn wagon whose brawny driver jumped out to sling the heavy frozen block over his leather-covered shoulder. The Woodlawn girls excelled in double Dutch rope-jumping, and both sexes played hide-and-seek, dodge ball, tag in backyards and handball at Audubon Park.

We learned to swim at the CYO pool, walking home wet-haired in the freezing winter to spend the hoarded seven-cent bus fare on penny candy at McMahon’s corner store. We went to Scout meetings and religious instruction weekly. On crisp fall days, we purloined potatoes from our mothers’ cupboards and tossed them into fires we would build on the vacant lot at the corner of Fulton and the Boulevard.

The neighborhood was occasionally visited by a police car, known for obscure reasons as “The Mickey Mouse.” Some parents in other neighborhoods, in those unenlightened days, threatened obstreperous offspring with retribution delivered by “the Bogeyman.” When our parents sought to curb some unacceptable behavior, the leveler cited was the mysterious Mickey Mouse, and not the Disney kind.

“Trick or Treat” on Halloween, if we were even aware of the practice in other cities, struck us as an arcane foreign ritual, going door-to-door idle-threatening the denizens of arcane mischief should they fail to provide a sweet treat. We celebrated that holiday in a homemade costume, the scarier the better, at a party in somebody’s cellar, often ours. They were nothing like such a thing as a “finished” basement or a playroom, those cellars were our mothers’ laundries, our fathers’ tool shops, housed the furnace and a coal bin (unless the householder had upgraded to oil), and served as the final resting place for sundry detritus no longer fit for upstairs but too good for “Mike Scat,” the city garbage contractor whose trucks proudly bore his full name — Michael Scatuorchio.

Days before the party, the cellar walls were covered with bedsheets and we kids occupied ourselves cutting out witches, black cats and pumpkins from construction paper. Multitudes of the images were then pinned to the sheets at random to create the appropriate decor for the party. We bobbed for apples, pinned the tail on the donkey, played telephone, and, if we dared, “Spin the Bottle.”

Thanksgiving — then, as now, my favorite holiday — was when Jersey City kids dressed in costume, often as Pilgrims or Indians, to visit the neighbors. The practice, called “going begging,” started soon after breakfast and ended by noon. We rang the doorbell of every home on the block, and when it was answered, announced the purpose of our visit with the time-honored question, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” while thrusting forward the basket or bag brought along to hold the proffered treasures. Three hours later, we trudged home with receptacles that overflowed with candy, cookies, cupcakes, apples, coins, small toys and coins.

Thanksgiving dinner at our house was enjoyed by the eight of us, with my father at the head of the large cherry table with a stack of plates in front of him for the turkey waiting to be carved after he first divested it of its oyster stuffing. My mother and sister and the three grandparents who lived with us, Aunt Bea, my mother’s sister who lived in Philadelphia and “went to business,” and I filled out the complement of diners. The meal ended with two homemade pies for dessert, mince and pumpkin, coffee for the adults.

The precious bottle of Chartreuse, an expensive cordial, was brought out and even we kids were permitted a few postprandial drops...

Gail Deily Menzel is a former psychologist and former director of special services at Hackettstown Public Schools. She’s a mother, grandmother and an expectant great-grandmother. She’s now retired and living in Flemington.

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