As far back as I can remember we always celebrated Turkey Day at our grandparent’s home at 1121 Highland Boulevard in San Antonio, Texas. By “we” I mean our dad’s sister Ursula Lucille Bernardoni Walden (our aunt), her husband Glenn Walden (our uncle), their four children, Glenda, Sharon, Steven and Christine, our mother Eva Cleveland Bernardoni and our father John Paul Bernardoni. These were our grandparents on my father’s side. Our grandfather, John Steven Bernardoni, survived the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 with his mother, Lucille Cariola Bernardoni and his sister, Viola Bernardoni. Our patriarch, Giovanni Carlo Bernardoni, an Italian immigrant from Bientina, Italy near Pisa died in the hurricane on September 8, 1900. That tragedy forever changed the Bernardoni Family arc.
Our grandmother, Nettie Riccobono Bernardoni, was the commander-in-chief of the kitchen and staff. Nettie was a Riccobono also of Galveston, Texas. The Riccobono’s hailed from Palermo, Sicily. They didn’t arrive until a few years after the Hurricane. My mother, father and I (my family called me “Michael” which is my middle name always went to Galveston for our summer vacation to stay with and eat with the Riccobono clan.
Grandma” would get tongue tied when calling for me by name in this manner: “Uh, Steven.. uh Glenn…uh, Brother…Michael”. I believe her little mind was spinning at a very high RPM try as she tried to bring order to a blitz of activities all of which occurred in a very short amount of time. For the longest time, I didn’t understand who or what she was talking about when she said “Brother” and “Sister”. I finally deduced that “Brother” was my father, John Paul Bernardoni and “Sister” was my aunt Ursula Bernardoni Walden. Even Aunt Ursula referred to our father as “Brother” as did a few others in the Galveston family. Those monikers probably come from another era common in folklore common amongst those who worked the land. Italian immigrant’s first order of business was to grow food. All other considerations came later.
Our grandfather, John Steven Bernardoni, had this beautiful, almost angelic, soft wavy white hair that, in fact, look a little like “angel hair” (spun glass) which was used on Christmas trees to create a soft, halo like glow from large C3 size Christmas lights. One needed to be very careful handling angel hair unless one desired a painful cut on a finger! Grandpa, who was barely two years old when he survived the Hurricane, worked as a young boy at the Galveston Daily News to help his mother and sister with expenses.
Years later, the Bernardoni’s packed up for San Antonio in 1925 to get our grandfather away from the ocean humidity due to his terrible asthma. He worked as a pressman on the print floor of the San Antonio Light for the next 50 years. Regrettably, the millions of tin pieces of newsprint floating through the air exacerbated his asthma. My first cousin Steven said that his pillow would be black in the mornings from all the soot. Cannot fathom what that did to his asthma which is the kind that a person has 24/7 every day and night!
I was always amazed how calm he seemed while our grandma was racing to and fro like a perpetual motion machine. He had a secret. Stay out of the kitchen!! Seated on a wooden picnic table in the backyard under a gigantic pecan tree he would listen in a state of bliss to the then Houston Colt .45’s baseball team (1962-1964) on a small transistor radio for hours and hours on end. He was most at peace most when listening to baseball games including the San Antonio Missions minor league ball club. Italians historically love baseball. See Joe DiMaggio and many more other Italian big leaguers.
For our Italian-American family like ours the scene was controlled chaos unlike Italian families in Italy who first split the atom at the dinner table. Cartwheeling arms like a helicopter to make a point was pure art in motion. This is how Italians express themselves. Flash cards hadn’t been invented in Italy back when. Add to that a din of voices, crashing pots and pans and one trying to shout over the other…well, the cacophony defied any attempt to give the scene a decibel rating.
It is notable that I spent the first thirty years of our life having Thanksgiving Day at our grandparents. Their warm, perfectly proportioned and modest home on the south side of San Antonio was Grand Central Station. It could be said that their home was a thoroughly American setting a la Norman Rockwell more than the Roman equivalent. The aura in the room had a kind of Fellini like atmosphere you could have cut with a knife like the heat rivulets ghosting off the scorching asphalt during a Texas summer. No one in our family drank liquor. For some reason, they always put a small, pimento cheese glass of rose in front of me. I took a tiny sip and then left it to be. We didn’t like the taste of it which reminded me of cough medicine. To say that these get togethers were wholesome would be to say that the Macy’s Day Parade was a balloon show for toddlers.
Italian immigrants made every effort to become Americans the first moment their feet left the gangplank for the Promised Land. Most families quickly changed their Italian names in favor of American names to blend in with their adopted home. I find that funny as Italians don’t suddenly become gangly Texans. Their dark and strong features didn’t allow for blending in the true sense of the word, physiologically speaking.
A rumor used to circulate like Marconi’s telegraph that there had been some traumatic incident in the recent past with a turkey being dropped on the immaculately clean kitchen floor. This is where the saying, “You could eat off her kitchen floor” originatedJ. If true, it is hard to know how our tiny and wirery grandmother survived this cataclysmic catastrophe so fixated was she on food, its cost, its preparation and most definitely the serving thereof. No one dared even bring up this calamity knowing they would have to peel our grandmother off the ceiling, spatula and all.
Thanksgiving dinner included a sumptuous, perfectly cooked Butter Ball turkey, green beans, candied yams, perfectly baked rolls that lapped up butter, olives (for which I was and am still addicted), ambrosia salad, a green Jell-O that defied gravity and dressing created by our grandmother with an assist from the Almighty! I’m probably leaving out some delicacies. Every one of us kids was well behaved, mostly. To be otherwise was to invite time on one’s knees saying novenas in the corner. While we were all salivating like Pavlov’s Dog our cousin Glenda would launch in to a lengthy prayer for which St. Francis of Assisi (Bernardone) would be proud. As the years went by she graduated from a small notebook of prayers to a large ring binder covering every prayerful occasion. Who needed to go to church after that? Me, definitely!
Once engorged and now sleepy, the boys and men would crawl happily like slugs slithering towards the living room a scant few feet away. And then, the “holy of holies” began: Thanksgiving Day football games. Our memory is that The University of Texas had beaten Texas A&M like a red headed stepchild from time ad infinitum! I wouldn’t say that in front of the Riccobono’s in Galveston who were populated by hard core Aggies. Yikes!
Lest you think this even was a once in a year gathering let me say that we routinely went to our grandparent’s house every Sunday after Catholic mass along with the Walden’s. For some unknown reason we never had dinners at our house. Then again, we didn’t have many visitors including our neighborhood friends. Come to think of it I have almost no memory of ever having dinner at Aunt Ursula’s either. For good reason, too! The Bernardoni family home on Highland Boulevard was the very heartbeat of the family and rightly so.
The backyard was the children’s private playpen. Steven and I spent countless hours trying to separate pecan hulls from the meat using a serious “nutcracker” and a device much like a pick used by dentists to torture kids and adults alike. I doubt we excavated enough meat to fill a shot glass. Still, we had a purpose in life. To a kid that was monumental.
On extremely rare occasions, my parents would drop me off at my grandparents for a few hours. I’m pretty sure grandpa was at the newspaper working diligently. I have no idea what grandma was doing in the house. Probably she was engaged in the eternal work to prepare some meal or another, shucking peas with the dexterity of a diamond cutter. Her inner kinetic energy might have made her invisible as she moved from one dimension to another and back again. Rod Serling would know.
Grandpa kept a huge roll of unused newsprint in the garage the size of an atomic radiated tomato a la 1950’s science fiction movies. I made to tear off a big piece. Borrowing a #2 pencil, I would sit on the porch out front counting cars as they made their way back and forth with monotonous regularity. It was hypnotic. This was my first introduction to a spread sheet. I divided the sheet of paper in to a labyrinth of tic-tac-toe except with many more boxes. On the left column I noted various makes of cars like Ford, Chevy, Oldsmobile, Dodge, Cadillac (beyond rare), Lincoln, Pontiac and so on. On the top row, I used hash marks to document the number of each kind of card. That car game was more fascinating to me than the most expensive toy. Car after car sped by moving from left to right and right to left. The hours rolled by until mom and dad fetched me to return to our house at 215 Carol Ann Drive just off New Braunfels
Grandpa and Grandma’s home on these dinner visits were absolutely idyllic in all ways. I cannot think of any more wholesome environment in which to grow from toddlers to grade schoolers, teenagers and college students. Even though we lost our great grandfather, those family members that followed became the true “keepers of the flame”. “Cousin Glenda! Pass me the olives!! Subito!!!