For all their blessings, 24 in Patterson Park family give thanks

November 23, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez

The sun breaks over Patterson Park just before 7 a.m., sending Thanksgiving's first light into a large brick town house, darkness thinning into gray as Eleanore Rybczynski fills a 26.17-pound turkey with handfuls of bread stuffing.

Her husband, attorney Edward B. Rybczynski -- pronounced Rib-chin-ski -- sits at the kitchen table in his robe, sipping coffee and eating toast as a stereo fills the house with the voices of a choir.

From time to time his wife gently calls his name and Mr. Rybczynski rises and moves next to her, his wife indicating that the huge bird needs to be turned this way or that.

The three-story house just above Eastern Avenue on Patterson Park Avenue, a former Spanish consulate built two years after the Civil War, is calm as dawn spreads into foggy daylight over East Baltimore.

At 7:36 a.m., Mrs. Rybczynski opens the oven door and her husband slides the turkey into a dark hole heated to 325 degrees.

Eight hours later the bird will feed 24 people -- all of them Rybczynski family members.

"This is when I get the most done, before the kids come," said Mrs. Rybczynski, taking off her apron as she gets ready to change for 9 a.m. Mass at Holy Rosary Catholic Church.

"The kids" are seven boys and three girls that began arriving after Edward and Eleanore married in 1954, starting with the birth of Paul in 1956 and continuing through David, born in 1969.

Mr. and Mrs. Rybczynski are each the children of corner grocers and grew up on the city's east side during the Great Depression and World War II. They met as young adults at a Polish social club and worked hard to raise 10 children in the city when most of their contemporaries were fleeing for the suburbs.

Their children and grandchildren are the family, the point on which all things are focused.

Said Mr. Rybczynski: "We look for excuses to get the kids together."

Grabbing a bag filled with canned goods, he and his wife leave the turkey roasting a few minutes before 9 a.m. and make the short walk to Holy Rosary.

Mr. Rybczynski, sporting a red bow tie, is the lector for the service, at which most worshipers will drop off food for the poor.

Mrs. Rybczynski sings in the choir with three of her sons and daughter-in-law Mary Veronica. Mary's 10-week-old daughter, Emma, looks up at the singers from a carry-cradle on the balcony floor of the ornate Polish church.

Down below, at the end of a long aisle down which Mrs. and Mrs. Rybczynski and all but one of their married children walked to exchange vows, the Rev. Chester Mieczkowski celebrates Mass.

"Let us give thanks to the Lord," he says.

The congregation responds: "It is right to give him thanks and praise."

The service ends with "America the Beautiful" as Mr. and Mrs. Rybczynski file out onto Chester Street for the short walk home.

It is barely 10 a.m. and already the sweet smell of countless roasting turkeys is wafting through the narrow streets and alleys around Patterson Park.

Back home, Mrs. Rybczynski cooks scrambled eggs and home fries for bachelor sons Mark, 25, and David, 20. All her children took piano lessons growing up, but Mark, who plays keyboard in a wedding band, and David, who studies saxophone at the Berklee School of Music, hope to build careers in music.

As they eat their eggs, the brothers trade opinions on jazz. Mr. Rybczynski listens closely as they talk. Later, he admits that he cares little for jazz but would travel anywhere in the country to hear his children play.

As morning drifts into afternoon, the family pulls together all the odds and ends needed to accommodate a sit-down dinner for 24, a feast supported by two tables stretching 17 feet between the dining room and kitchen. A piano bench is pulled in from a baby grand in the front room to make sure there are enough seats for everybody.

The doorbell starts to ring and the house fills. Son Tom and his wife, Mary Veronica, bring a couple of dozen oysters from Broadway Market and a tureen of oyster and spinach stew; daughter Carol and husband David Dieter arrive with pork and sauerkraut soup; Paul and wife Sara bring squash -- "an American vegetable" -- and newlywed son John and wife Irma show up with homemade French bread and a casserole of vegetables shaped like a birthday cake.

The Poly football team beats up on the team from City College -- Mr. Rybczynski's alma mater -- on cable television as Tom shucks oysters and the turkey cools in a shaft of autumn sunlight next to him.

The kids, all grown, tease each other over who will get the biggest piece of brown and crispy turkey skin, just as when they were little.

David Dieter polishes silver as his relatives walk from room to room, sipping beer from long-necked brown bottles or wine from crystal; his 2 1/2 -year-old son, Joey, runs through the house with his cousins, falls, and bangs his nose on Uncle Paul's knee, crying until Mommy kisses it and makes it better; and Mr. Rybczynski sets out crystal around each table setting as Mary Veronica folds linen napkins.

Daughter Carol Dieter takes the sweet potatoes and peels them by hand on a sheet of newspaper. She looks up at her family and laughs: "Don't I look like June Cleaver? I'm wearing my pearls."

The 83-year-old matriarch, great-grandmother Marie Nowak, is dressed in regal purple and shares the spotlight with all the youngsters. Her smile fills the kitchen as she is squeezed, kissed and hugged by all of her grandchildren, among them a chemist, a choir director, a Realtor and an electrician.

Crystal pitchers are filled with ice water and fresh cider, and for a few seconds, Mr. Rybczynski stands in silence at the head of the table.

It is clear. It is time.

The family bows their heads and Mr. Rybczynski begins: "Dear Lord," he says, "We have so much to be thankful for. . . ."

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