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Family has never missed ‘Italian’ Thanksgiving together

On this busy Sunday before Thanksgiving, consider the holiday tradition of the extended Fruci-Sacco-Perry family.

At the family’s “Italian Thanksgiving” – which takes place in even-numbered years – as many as 45 family members gather together in a host family’s home in Spokane.

These hosts, now in their 50s and 60s, inherited the tradition from their parents. But they are uncertain whether their grown children will carry it on.

Through the Fruci-Sacco-Perry holiday traditions – they celebrate every other Christmas and Easter together, too – you can trace both societal and familial changes of the past 100 years. Join us at this unique table.

In the beginning

Grandma Rose Sacco arrived in the United States in 1917, with her two young daughters, to join her husband, who had traveled back and forth between the “old” and “new” country since he was 13.

Spokane was home then to a thriving Italian community, drawn here by railroad, mining and lumber, the Inland Northwest economies built on the backs of immigrants.

Grandma Sacco and her husband, Mike, had three children: Marian, Laura and Ernie. (A fourth child, Ralph, died as a toddler.)

The Sacco siblings grew up on Spokane’s North Side in an Italian ? immigrant enclave.

Grandma Sacco had left her tight-knit village in the Calabria region and “it was very hard for her to make the move,” says Janet (Perry) Wolf, Sacco’s granddaughter.

“She never had any schooling in Italy. She spoke very broken English.”

But Grandma Sacco gardened. And boy, she could she cook.

Granddaughter Christine (Sacco) Williams remembers watching her make ravioli: “She rolled the dough on her white enamel kitchen table with a broomstick.”

Wolf believes Grandma Sacco found her “voice” in the new country through cooking.

Her recipes still appear on all holiday tables. Thanksgiving dinners mix traditional fare – turkey and stuffing – with Italian offerings: pasta, for sure, and Grandma Sacco’s famous bread.

“What was always fun was tossing bread to each other and catching it on your fork,” remembers grandson Bob Perry.

“That used to really bother Grandma. One year she thought she had the solution: rolls. But they were like little footballs. Naturally, we threw those also.”

The sibling generation

The children of Grandma and Grandpa Sacco came of age in the 1940s.

Marian married Roger Fruci and built an accounting firm still in business today.

Laura married Tony Perry, a woodworker who owned the Spokane franchise for Pella window products. Ernie, a salesman, was married to Timmy, a woman of Scottish and Irish heritage, who worked as an office manager.

The three siblings remained in Spokane, in the days when first-generation immigrant children rarely moved away from their parents or married out of their ethnic group.

Marian, Laura, Ernie and their spouses became best friends. They had nine children among them. The Fruci-Sacco-Perry extended family was born.

The siblings split holiday hosting duties. Everyone fit around the table.

Mike Sacco, son of Ernie and Timmy, remembers: “My uncles Roger Fruci and Tony Perry would ask about my life, school and sports. Tony taught me how to be careful and respectful of alcohol. Roger taught me how to be interested in others.

“The holidays were when I learned what it was like to be a caring, contributing adult.”

Rich Perry, 71, recalls their after-Thanksgiving- dinner rituals in the early years.

“The women would clear the table,” he says. “The men would lie down on the floor. Then we jumped on their stomachs to wake them up.”

The boomer generation

The nine Fruci-Sacco-Perry cousins came of age in the 1960s and the 1970s. Most are baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964.

Like all boomers, they changed the status quo. They married non-Italians.

“When I was engaged to Jan and brought her to Sunday breakfast, my grandmother, Gelsomina Fruci, accosted me in front of her asking why I hadn’t dated any Italian girls,” Paul Fruci Sr., now 64, remembers.

Some of the cousins moved away from Spokane.

And wives found their voices outside the kitchen. They wanted to spend holidays with their non-Italian families, too.

And so, the two-holiday tradition was born in the 1970s.

“We needed some system,” Paul Fruci said. “I came up with the chart.”

The holiday chart distinguishes between “Italian” holidays and “in-law” holidays. Italian Thanksgivings happen in even-numbered years, in-law Thanksgivings in odd-numbered years. Christmas and Easter are also divided into odd-even years.

The Italian holidays are spread among four of the nine Fruci-Sacco-Perry cousins and their spouses who live in Spokane. These cousins are the family elders now.

Paul and Jan Fruci will host this Thanksgiving. They expect about 22 people, a relatively small crowd.

The host families all own huge warming trays. Buffet lines long ago replaced family-style dishes served at the table. Everyone contributes food and beverages. The men help with cleanup.

Instead of sleeping men jumped on by children after dinner, family members occasionally take walks.

In an irony that might have comforted Grandma Fruci, the non-Italians in the group cook the traditional foods with an ethnic fervor. Jan Fruci, greeted with a lukewarm welcome by Grandma Fruci long ago, has become the go-to family member for advice on many Italian dishes.

Jeannine Marx Fruci married Dave Fruci – and into the Italian holiday tradition – in 1984.

“Food is very important to Italians, like breathing!” Jeannine quickly discovered.

“Learning to cook Mom (Marian) Fruci’s recipes not only let me carry on the traditions, but (let me) spend time with her in her kitchen,” she says.

When she made spaghetti sauce one day many years ago, Mom Fruci paid her the highest compliment possible, Jeannine says.

Her mother-in-law told her, “This is the closest to Grandma Sacco’s red sauce I have tasted since I left Italy.”

The future generation

The nine Fruci-Sacco-Perry cousins, grounded in the immigrant work ethic and strong family traditions, have prospered. They work as nonprofit executives, teachers and principals, accountants, real-estate developers. Rich Perry, the oldest of the cousins, is a Jesuit priest in Missoula.

Their children, the great-grandchildren of Grandma Sacco, number more than two dozen and are in their 20s and 30s. Some of them have children, too.

Some from these modern generations wove into the family in modern ways – as stepchildren, for instance, or through adoption.

But at Italian holidays, they all trace their origins to a common past through Grandma Fruci’s red sauce, Aunt Timmy’s potatoes, Grandma Sacco’s “wedding” soup and Italian cookies.

They hear stories of holidays past, including how well everyone got along, despite some famous tempers in the family.

“I don’t remember a single argument,” says Roger Fruci, 58.

But will the younger generation continue the tradition?

On Jan. 1, Paul Fruci Sr. will send out a chart detailing the holiday rotation to 2020.

Some family members believe the holiday traditions will die within the next 10 to 15 years as the boomer generation “retires” from hosting.

But at least two from that future generation insist otherwise.

“It probably will become more difficult, but it will continue,” says Paul Fruci Jr., 39. “It’s good for our kids.”

Jelsomina Fruci, 23, is the daughter of Dave and Jeannine. She was named in honor of Grandma Gelsomina, with a slight alteration in the spelling.

Jelsomina intends to never to let go of this Italian legacy.

“If it weren’t for the tradition, I wouldn’t know half my cousins,” she says. “Family is important, bottom line.”