Doused in leaves of red and yellow, our small town was picturesque in autumn. Seated along the Monongahela River, the air was a crisp 45, as the unboxing of steel tracks, model bridges and road signs announced the arrival of yet another holiday season in Glassport, Pennsylvania. Penny was in the basement, unpacking one box after another with determination to have his ever-expanding train set up and running by Christmas.
Rosie on the front steps of 306 Monongahela
Upstairs, recipes scribbled by hand and torn from cookbooks graced the kitchen countertop, as Rose compiled the ingredients for pumpkin pie, stuffing, and green bean casserole. That Glassport kitchen had to be the size of a guest bath, and yet she managed to build a feast within its bounds.
And I...well, I had the best seat in the house!—a red stool in the corner of the kitchen where I could watch the food being made (and maybe swipe a taste!) without being in my mother’s way.
Aromas of cinnamon and ginger swirled through the kitchen and into the living room where Wayne sat with Tommy Sweeney, a blind foster child around 9-years-old. Tommy smiled as Roy wound the key of a shiny tin car.
Roy gave the key one more crank and sent the car racing across the carpet. Tommy excitedly followed the unwinding of its gears and returned the car for Wayne to wind over and over again until dinnertime.
Tommy was like family. During the school year, he lived with his parents and attended a Braille school, but over the holidays, he lived with us in Glassport and spent summers with us at the farm. He had two glass eyes that he was always taking out and misplacing. Many hours were spent on hands and knees wondering where on Earth Tommy had left his eyes!
Penny & Tommy
“Hey there, Tommy!” Uncle Ed and Aunt Mary announced their arrival, a hot casserole dish in hand.
“Do me a favor and stir the gravy, Roy,” Rose asked, her hands sticky with pie dough as she embraced our new arrivals.
Her famous sweet potato balls were already out of the oven when she left the kitchen, and I was sure to take advantage as I stirred. The marshmallow center was still warm and the cornflake crust, sweet and crunchy. Absolute perfection. (Recipe link)
“Are you still stirring?” Rose hollered, entering with yet another casserole dish. I managed a “yes” through sticky teeth.
“Joe,” Rose continued, “Can you bring up my carving knife?” Rose was now in full hostess mode, as more and more guests arrived by the minute. Penny, however, hadn’t caught the growing sound of footsteps nor the distinct bouquet of a Thanksgiving harvest simmering and baking above him. No, Penny was too focused on connecting tracks and wires that would fill the entire basement with train whistles and Christmas spirit.
“Joe?” she called again. This time, he stood up, clunking his head against the bottom of the train platform.
“My carving knife.”
Of course. The carving knife, a gift from Penny, was still in its box, sitting patiently in the basement since last Christmas. It was finally time for it to shine.
Penny ascended the stairs to a cacophony of family, friends, and neighbors all piled into his home, the model trains in his rearview...at least until tomorrow.
The house seemed to expand like magic on holidays and the food was endless. Three foster babies had just woken from their naps and were crawling on the living room floor. Penny knelt before them to play peek-a-boo. They smiled wide and giggled as only babies can do, lighting up the entire room, when—
“Dinner’s ready!” Rose’s voice rang the bell, and we darted to the table to clap our eyes on the glorious spread. The turkey was cooked to perfection at center, the green beans and biscuits and cranberry sauce awaited the blessing, and boy did our bellies rumble!
“Dear Lord,” Penny started. He gave thanks for the food, for all those gathered, and most of all for his beloved wife, the best cook to ever adorn a Thanksgiving day. When he finished, we all said,
“Amen” in unison.
Spirit of Giving | Penny & Rose featured with 3 foster babies, alongside Roses' handwritten list of the 51 foster babies they cared for over the years.
This was Tommy’s cue to show off his talents. Before anyone grabbed a single serving spoon, he’d stand proudly and announce the day’s cuisine by scent and scent alone.
“Carrots!” he’d start, then, “Beans!” “Corn!” and “Mashed potatoes!” He was rarely wrong, and we all just sat in amusement and in awe of his skillful sense. But by the time he got to the turkey, we were too impatient to not dig in…
Penny’s mother had already grabbed the cranberry sauce and took a heaping serving.
“Mom, you know that’s cranberry sauce, not Jell-O, right?” Penny warned. His mother loved Jell-O, but cranberry sauce? She paused for a moment. Indeed, it was cranberry sauce. But not wanting to be wrong, she plopped the final spoonful on her plate, and in her thick Eastern European accent proclaimed,
“Yes, I know, Joe. I know.”
Quiet giggles circled the table as Grandma Pensenstadler forced down all that cranberry sauce with cool stoicism.
Not an inch of my plate was bare, as I stacked on more stuffing and a second biscuit heaped with butter. On Thanksgiving, the kids ate whatever they wanted, and my parents were far too distracted to see just how many sweet potato balls I had eaten before the meal was even served.
After dinner, we turned on the football game. The Detroit Lions were hosting the Green Bay Packers and it was sure to be a close game. Penny was in the kitchen with the carving knife, cleaning the bones of our biggest bird yet. Tomorrow, we’d smother hot turkey sandwiches in gravy and lay about the house well past noon, our bellies still stuffed with pumpkin pie.
No one had trouble falling asleep that night, except for me. I had the honor of sharing a bed with Tommy, who would only begin to doze off after asking a million questions.
“Tell me the story again?” Tommy asked.
“Just one more time,” I yawned, “Okay?” Tommy shook his head. “The ball was snapped. Bobby Lane took three steps back, as the Packers’ defensive line advanced…”
My eyes began to close as I recalled the Lions’ 28-24 victory. And dozing off, I hadn’t seen Tommy take out both glass eyes and place them on the bedside table. Imagine my surprise when I awoke to two eyes staring right at me through the haze of morning light.
“Tommy!” I must’ve been white as a ghost. I bolted from bed, now wide awake, only to realize those eyes were his. “You don’t sleep with those things in?” I panted, and Tommy never laughed so hard.
Needless to say, that story followed me all day and would continue to make us laugh well into old age. Family memories are simply the best, even when you’re the butt of them.
A house once bustling is much quieter today. My mother is in the kitchen, and I’ve just arrived with my wife and kids, a few casserole dishes in hand to add to the Thanksgiving feast. Though there may be fewer people this year, the amount of food is just the same. Rose kneels to hug the little ones with pie dough stuck to her fingers. They receive her kisses with smiles, her famous sweet potato balls within eyesight.
“Dad in the basement?” I ask, but I already know the answer. He’s got work to do. Christmas is just thirty days away, and there are tracks to be laid, trains to be unboxed. I’m about to make my way down there when the phone rings.
“Hello?” Rose answers.
“Do you know who this is?” the man asks on the other end.
“Tommy Sweeney!” Rose exclaims, and I stop short with my hand on the basement door.
“Hey, Tommy!” I shout loud enough so he can hear me.
“That’s Roy,” she smiles, and for the next thirty minutes, she’s forgotten all about the pies in the oven, which my wife rescues at the first scent of burning crust.
Tommy had called to thank them for their love and kindness to him when he was just a boy. “You’ve impacted and changed my life dramatically,” he told her. “I’ve actually made a tape,” he added. “Can I send it to you?”
A few days later, they received the cassette. It was Tommy’s voice alright, and on it, he detailed his days in Glassport and on the farm, thanking Penny and Rose for welcoming him into their home.
That house in Glassport seemed to expand like magic around the holidays, always making room for just one more. And although the years see fewer and fewer of the same faces, the legacy of their laughter and the spirit of their generosity fills the space they left behind.
From the corner of my eye, I catch my son sizing up the sweet potato balls, as Rose wraps herself up in the phone cord and Tommy’s voice on the end of the line.
“Hey,” I whisper in his direction and nod to the tray on the stove top. “Grab me one too.”