|With my Grandpa Kenny, playing "Heart and Soul," 1969|
So I did a head count the other day and realized that of all the people who used to surround my family’s table on Christmas, the vast majority aren’t there anymore.
This doesn’t exactly come as a shock to me; I’m not a young person. And it also isn’t a valid reason to feel sorry for myself; there are 20 families in Connecticut who will be missing their little children every Christmas from now on. But it’s still sobering, especially when I think about the fact that as families lose members, the character of the holiday tends to change as well.
The Christmases of my youth look to my mind like a still from “Mad Men.” Everyone was glamorous and handsome and laughing and smoking. The women wore aprons over their cocktail dresses from Feldman’s Phase II on the west side; the men wore ties and followed their Hamm’s beers with chasers of bourbon-infused eggnog. The house smelled of pasta and cherry tobacco from someone’s pipe … and decals. Our house always smelled of paint and adhesive from decals, our family’s livelihood; the “stickers,” as I called them, bore the names of implement dealers and manufacturers of giant machines. They didn’t hold much interest for a little girl, but I respected them; I knew they bought my books and my markers and my Hostess cupcakes.
Christmas Eve was spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, opening and modeling expensive clothes made of 100-percent wool; although I was allergic to the fabric and it caused me to break out in hives on contact, I was instructed to “ooh” and “aah” over the garments and enthuse repeatedly that I couldn’t wait to wear them. Grandma also gave me books each year; from her, I received the Narnia series, the Little House books, and the volumes of bad poetry I loved so much, and I couldn’t wait to open the tissue-wrapped packages. We’d eat pasta and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus around the blue-flocked tree, and then we were off to midnight Mass – at 10:30 on the dot, so there would be enough seats for all of us.
The next day, the same crowd came to our house; we’d all wear our new outfits from Grandma, with my stage-whispers of “Can I change now? OK, how much longer?” punctuating the otherwise-festive environment. (In all fairness to my allergic little self, I itched so much after a few hours in those woolen dresses that I’d have to be given take a Benadryl before bed to calm the welts.) I wonder now, as all adults do, why I didn’t pay more attention; why I didn’t try to learn some of the Italian my elders spoke for those many, many years in my family room. Why I didn’t spend more time playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano with my grandpa. He loved that so much, while I rolled my eyes after the second or third repetition. Why I didn’t ask my nana to please tell me stories of all her brothers and sisters back in Crucoli. Why I had my eyes in a book instead of on my loud, fascinating, beautiful family.
This Christmas will mark the second since my dad died; as I told a friend today, last year, his death was still pretty new, but this year it’s all too clear he’s not coming back. I like to think he’s having Christmas with my mom now, and with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and all the people who used to pass through our front door with great, booming “Merry Christmas”es and platters of fudge and wandas and strawberry-shaped nut cookies stuffed with dates. I see him in his white shirt and tie, smoking a Kool and smelling like Old Spice and laughing more and more as the evening wore on. I see my nana in her dark-blue housedress and black shawl, smiling as she spoke Italian with the few who still understood her. I see my grandma, shiny and beautiful, giving air-kisses and sneaking envelopes into our hands. “To our Lisa at Christmastime,” mine would always say. I think I still have one somewhere.
As I bake and wrap presents in preparation for my family’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations, it’s difficult not to feel a bit unmoored; I’m no one’s idea of a kid anymore, or a niece or a granddaughter. I look in the mirror and my aunt’s face peers back; not my aunt as a pretty young girl, but my aunt at 50, with gray roots and the beginnings of jowls and crepe-paper skin on her hands. And I realize that for my kids, I’ll someday be one of those memories … the subject of “Can you believe Mom did that?” or “Remember when she tried to cook?” or, hopefully, “This ornament (or this book, or this song) reminds me of Mom.” And I don’t know how I’ll make it happen, but I’m hoping I can encourage everyone to put down the distractions and remain a bit more “in the moment” this year.
Because all too soon, those moments are gone. And you’d give all the fruitcake and tinsel in the world for one more rendition of “Heart and Soul.”