For reasons based mainly in guilt, I am actually going to travel east this holiday season. After an absence of five years, my brother will be part of my mother’s holiday again and my sister and I decided that it would be nice if we were all together for Christmas Eve – something we haven’t achieved for more than 15 years. Besides, it was easier to just accept the horror of holiday travel than to accept the quiet sighs from my mother that would end every conversation we’d have between now and Christmas if I wasn’t heading east.
This holiday will be relatively quiet compared to those of the past. All my mother’s sisters and brothers have died except for one. My dad and his brothers are no longer around. My mother works to maintain some of our Christmas Eve traditions. But it’s hard when we all start making gagging sounds if she even mentions cooking up baccala. I think she probably feels we should have gotten past that once we turned 40.
We had very traditional holidays when I was a child. The men ate and the women cooked, cleaned, did the dishes and cared for the children. This was considered an even division of labor. To this day, if my brother or one of my male cousins actually makes an appetizer all by himself, it is treated by the remaining members of the older generation as nothing short of a miracle. As an example, let me just mention that the store bought pineapple shaped like a turkey that my brother brought to the Thanksgiving table caused my mother and aunt to practically swoon.
My Aunt Ida and Uncle Paul hosted our family holidays after my grandmother died. They didn’t have children so they could afford some of the luxuries our parents couldn’t. One of those luxuries was an espresso coffee machine that seemed to rise three stories high. My aunt would roll it on a small table to my uncle at the end of the meal. He would personally dispense the dense liquid that signaled the official end of the holiday feast. The coffee was served in tiny cups with a sliver of lemon peal on the side. On the table would be various liquors – anisette being the favorite – a splash of which was added to each cup.
Then the men would turn on the TV while the women cleaned up. It was one of the first color TV’s anyone in my family ever had – another of those luxuries that came with being childless.
I’d listen to snatches of their conversation as I helped clear the table. “Turn it more to the left, he shouldn’t be green.” “Well, now it’s orange and I know that football team does not have orange uniforms.” “Maybe if you tried to turn both knobs at once it would blend better – wait, you’ve got it! No, no – go back, go back. They’re all purple now.”
Eventually the heavy dinner, homemade wine and anisette laced espresso would take it’s toll and conversation would gradually die out as the men’s eyes got heavy and their heads nodded. Soon the only sign of life in the living room would be my uncle smoking his cigar while staring at little orange green figures on the screen.
Other families might have gathered around the piano to sing Christmas carols after their dinner. Some might have come together to hear Dickens’ classic Christmas tale. In my family, we sat around after dinner and tried to get even one face on the TV to be a nearly human color. It may not be for everyone, but it was our tradition.