Thanksgiving was always a favorite holiday. About thirty of my closest cousins, aunts and uncles, in addition to my own mom, dad, and brother would gather at Grandma’s Pittsburgh house for ravioli (hey, we’re Italian). They came from near and far. Grandma set her table with the entire array of “American” specialties including turkey, cranberry and every and any “fixin'” you could imagine. Dessert took on a bit of an Italian flair with cannoli, sfogliatelle and plates of those yummy almond paste pignoli nut cookies, nuts, cheese, and fruit lined up beside two pumpkin pies.
Although you may think that the thirty or so of us would be enough to gobble up those goodies, there were always four to six unrelated folks at table with us. If my Grandma heard of anyone who did not have a place to go, they would be invited. If one of us had a friend who did not have family nearby…they were welcome!
So, of course my family was very happy to agree when I invited a foreign student to share with us the Thanksgiving of 1970, my first year of graduate school in Washington , DC. Ever budget conscious Siggie and I secured tickets on a holiday express Greyhound bus for the four day weekend and set out after our late afternoon Wednesday classes for what should have been a five hour trip to Pittsburgh. We chatted happily as the bus pushed ahead out of the city, onto the beltway and then made the turn for Route 70 west.
Siggie and I were so engrossed in our conversation that we never noticed the darkening skies and the soft white flakes drifting down onto the road. Siggie was excited to learn more about American holidays and family life. As the bus was about to turn onto Route 70 West, our conversation and the bus itself came to a stop. A large semi-tractor trailer truck making the entrance onto 70 had overturned, blocking the way. Completely. About thirty minutes passed. Then an hour.
Police and ambulances arrived. Siggie looked out of the window. “Joan, the snow is falling faster and harder.”
Snow removal equipment could not get the truck out of the way. “Prepare to spend the night,” the bus driver finally announced. “I have enough fuel to keep the heat on in the bus, so don’t worry. And of course, we have a bathroom.”
I looked out the window and was glad of those two basics—heat and a toilet. Outside there was no moon– only white flakes pelting the bus now, faster and faster, and after craning my neck, I could see a long line of cars behind us shutting off their lights (to save battery) as the police office informed all of them that if they could not turn around (not easy), and they should prepare to spend the night in their cars.
Siggie and I shared some crackers and cheese we brought with us and some tea from a thermos. (Carrying bottled water was not a universal habit in 1970s America.) We finally fell asleep. Around seven on Thanksgiving morning, we looked out the window. Sky was clearing. Someone began to pound on the bus doors. A line of people stretched from the bus front door on down the road hoping to use our restroom. The driver told them they could come in after all of the people on the bus had an opportunity to benefit from the facilities. We hurried through morning ablutions.
Around eight a police siren alerted us to the arrival of the tow truck. Everyone on the bus cheered as a team of workers pulled the semi out of the way and we could rumble on down the highway. When the bus got to Breezewood (halfway point to Pittsburgh), the bus made an unscheduled stop so we could all buy something to eat. I asked Siggie to pick up something for me and I called my parents (no cell phones in those days) to let them know we were ok and to give them our approximate arrival time.
When we arrived in Pittsburgh that Thanksgiving morning, all of my family was at the station to greet us—well, except for Grandma and one Aunt. Those two were putting the finishing touches on the feast. No one minded that we were late, they were just happy we were safe.
Once at Grandma’s, we recounted our tale of Night of the Living Greyhound, eliciting giggles from my younger cousins when we told the part about the people lining up to use the bathroom. Siggie was impressed that we prayed before the meal—something not done often in Italy.
The next day, I introduced Siggie to Black Friday shopping and American football on TV. Over the four days, Siggie tasted every kind of “American” food we served, but truthfully, since Siggie was from the Austro-Italian area of Trieste, she mostly chowed down on the Italian specialties.
On the way home, we took plenty of leftover turkey, eggplant, ravioli, and an assortment of cheese back with us on the bus.
“Just in case you have to stop again,” my Mom told us. What she liked best, Siggie told me, was spending the holiday with a real family, who asked her questions about herself, but who really just folded her into the celebration—we shared everything we had with her.
After that experience, I never again tried to get back to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving. Instead, breaking with the tradition of going home, I held my own feasts. I invited people, often foreign students, to my apartment where I made turkey and “fixings.”
A few years later, after I married, I recounted my tale of travel lows and hospitality highs on Thanksgiving weekend. My husband agreed that Thanksgiving would become “our” holiday to honor God by being thankful and by sharing out traditions and our meal with neighbors, those who did not have anyplace else to celebrate, and with foreign students.
We also added the tradition of reading a ”thankfulness” Psalm before eating and asking each guest to name one thing they could be thankful for on that day. For us, a table is not full unless there are guests and we are not properly showing thankfulness to God for what we have unless we are sharing it.
Joan Leotta has been playing with words since childhood. She is a poet, essayist, journalist, playwright, and author of several books both fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. She is also a performer and gives one-woman shows on historic figures and spoken word folklore shows as well as teaching writing and storytelling.
Joan lives in Calabash, NC where she walks the beach with husband, Joe. www.joanleotta.wordpress.com and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Joan-Leotta-Author-and-Story-Performer/188479350973