As American as Mrs. Reisz

In 1984, the year that my family arrived in the United States, our neighbor Marion Reisz helped us celebrate our first Thanksgiving. We spoke no English then. No one in our family had ever seen a turkey much less eaten one in our lives – but there she was in our kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, teaching my Korean mother how to prepare a traditional meal, from turkey to mashed potatoes to stuffing and everything in between.

Every Thanksgiving, no matter where we are, my sister and I always think of her. Today is no exception. Mrs. Reisz passed away last week, of cancer, at age 86.

My mom, my sister, our youngest daughters (ages 3 and 1), and I had the chance to visit her a few months ago in August at her house in New Jersey. Ever the cook, she prepared a delicious baked ziti for all of us, even though she was sick. We chased my 3-year-old around as she touched every breakable and valuable in her home.

It was in that home, in her red kitchen – still the same red some 30 years later – that I first tasted homemade tomato sauce… and homemade desserts… and homemade many things. My sister and I still remember the matching Strawberry Shortcake dolls that Mr. and Mrs. Reisz gave us one Christmas. She had bought each sister the same thing so we wouldn’t fight.

To our family, back then just newly arrived immigrants, Mrs. Reisz was the loving embrace and the warm welcome of America. For all the injustice and inequity that exists here, for all the racism, xenophobia, the shouts of “ching-chongs” our family has faced since, Mrs. Reisz is one of the first and many reasons for why I can believe that this country is still pretty great. Because of her, we learned that being an American meant opening your heart and home to your neighbors, no matter the differences in language or culture. We learned to laugh big, to eat well, to always feed others and share our bounty. As adults, we learned what a feisty liberal she was – always fighting for progress and justice, taking her elected officials to task.

Not every immigrant/newcomer/”other” has had or will have a Mrs. Reisz. As an American now, I can think of no other tribute to her life than to always strive to be a Mrs. Reisz for others.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!