Friday, December 16, 2016
It's funny. When certain times of the year arrive that evoke a very vivid memory, you can't help but go with it and let it take you where it will. Sometimes for good, and other times for much deeper reasons.
It's been three months since my father passed away. Each little "first" has been difficult. First Thanksgiving without him, first Christmas season now. My parent's anniversary came and went (would have been their sixty-first!). His birthday will bring memories of cakes gone by, and the silly way we always sang on them, and cut them with two people holding the knife. Each holiday, or time of the year that meant something special to my father will be ingrained upon my heart.
What kind of memories does this time of the year bring to you? Do you still smell the scents of baking, hear the fading of the Christmas carols from long past? Does an old ornament bring feelings of joy? For we all have them...good and bad...memories and stories of times that we once knew.
This time of the year is particularly vivid for our senses. The crisp feel of the cold air on a snowy morning. The twinkling of lights on a still, dark night. Old recipe cards long-stained from years of baking. A special decoration that tugs at your heart; and the memory of the first time you helped place it in just the right spot.
Not everyone grew up in a loving home. There are some who may feel a sense of sadness at this time of the year for what might have been. But it doesn't need to stop there. We can break the chains that bind us; we have the power to make new memories and re-tell those stories but now with a much happier ending.
Celebrate, my friends! Know that time does heal wounds, deep scars and sadness. Though other events will take their place in our lives, we all can grow and change. We all can make new memories for our children and grandchildren. We can give them what we never had. And we can give them the gift of the simpler stories from times past. Old and new. Let's tell the stories that mold our lives.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
I love Christmas movies and stories on Hallmark. I am a sucker for the lessons they teach and the beauty they share. In this crazy mixed up world, it is refreshing to watch them during this season.
A few years ago, I wrote several short vignettes that are what I call "fictional memoirs." They are based on many true events that happened in my mother's family. The stories my mother used to tell me are ingrained in my heart, and none of them more special than the one you are about to read.
I had the series of vignettes made into a book called "Reflections From My Mother's Kitchen: A Journey of Healing and Hope." This is one of the tales. I hope you enjoy it, for it is my Christmas present to you, dear reader. If you do like it, perhaps you will let me know. Or you may want to read the rest of this book which is available on Amazon as a paperback and e book. I will leave details at the end.
Some of you may already recognize parts of this from other stories or blogs I've written. Let the magic of a special Christmas Eve warm your heart....
The first flakes of snow began to fall on the early December morning. A week before Christmas, and winter seemed late this year; it had held its icy fingers off a little longer than usual.
I curled up on my couch, a soft, multi-colored afghan pulled around me,one of my angora cats resting peacefully on my lap. The other lay nearby, two green slitted eyes blinking lazily at me. I resigned myself to the fact that today would just be a leisurely day on my sofa. Several of my favorite DVD’s lay nearby, ones I had watched many times.
One of my small, artificial Christmas trees glowed in tiny white lights, Victorian ornaments dangling from branches covered in fake snow. The larger tree, in the corner of the room, held a mishmash of decorations from many years past. On one branch, a construction paper snow man my son had made in Kindergarten sat watch, his shiny sequin buttons sparkling as the multi-color lights bounced off him. On another, an ornate birdcage with two love birds sitting on a swing, welcoming my husband and me into a new home which dated back several years. Bits and pieces of each of our pasts scattered about the branches. So many memories.
The curtains were open to the day before me, skies gray and overcast. The forecast called for a couple inches of snow, and I pouted over this. I was supposed to help my mother bake Christmas cookies today but snow and my car didn’t get along. I drove an old, small Chevy Cavalier, and it didn’t do well on slick roads. I had promised Mom days ago that I would be there and I didn’t want to disappoint her.
It was a yearly ritual, the baking of the Christmas cookies. Mom could really use my help, but knowing her, she was up early, already starting without me. I picked up my cell phone and dialed her number.
“Hey, Mom, how’s it going?” I closed my eyes waiting for the guilt speech to begin.
Instead, she surprised me. “Hi honey. I was watching the forecast just now. Supposed to only get an inch or so of snow by later today. You still coming out? Got a pot of coffee on just for us.”
What could I say? “Yes, of course I’m coming, Mom. I’ll be there in about an hour or so.” I clicked off my phone and called out to my husband.
“Steve, I think I’m going to Mom’s today after all.” I gently nudged my cat Bella aside. She was sleeping so soundly, she didn’t even stir. Her brother, Rocco perked his head up, watching me.
Steve strolled into the room, still in his flannel Steeler PJ’s and yawned. My heart still tugged in my chest at the sight of him. Jet- black hair and lean body.He smiled that crooked smile of his at me.
“Do you want me to drive you there, Kate?” He walked over and pulled me gently off the couch wrapping his arms around me.
Such a good man.He would do this, I knew it. Saturday, his precious day off from teaching, and he would take me to my parents knowing how important it was to me.
“No, you and Mark finish decorating the outside today, okay?” I stole a kiss then, a delicious warm kiss. My husband grabbed me tighter for a moment.
“Hmmm, maybe I won’t let you go after all,” he said, stroking my cheek gently with his hand.
Our son walked into the room. “Hey, it’s snowing! Yipeee!” He rubbed his eyes sleepily, and then looked over at us. “Gross,” he said, making a funny scrunched up face.
Mark was eleven years old, and like any young boy, the sight of our affection caused him to vocalize his feelings at our apparent indiscretion.
I wiggled out of Steve’s grasp and grabbed my son, making smooching noises in his ear and kissing his cheeks.
“Yuck, Mom, stop it. Okay, I give up,” he said, collapsing onto the Lazy Boy recliner, his long, skinny feet dangling off the side.
“You boys gonna be alright today without me?” I slipped into my scuffed winter boots, which lay next to the couch.
“We’ll manage somehow,” Steve said, pouncing on Mark and tickling him until he giggled so much he could hardly breathe. “We men folk are a tough, rugged bunch, right buddy?” Steve mussed Mark’s wavy hair making it stick up in different directions. “Give me your keys, Kate, I’ll clear off your car and warm it up for you,” Steve said with one final tickle at our son. He slipped into his corduroy jacket and a pair of old tennis shoes he kept by the side door. “You sure you don’t want me to take you?”
I handed him the car keys, weighing the situation. If Steve drove, he’d be stuck there for hours on his day off. He had paperwork to catch up on, and I knew he wanted to string the rest of the pastel twinkle lights around our porch.
Mark would definitely get bored at some point, even though my father amused him with his craft kits and old video games. Dad had kept the old Sega game system which had been my brother Matt’s. My father and brother had bonded for hours over Sonic the Hedgehog and Galaga. Now Dad and Mark played those same games.
“No, I’ll be okay,” I said. Igathered up some of my own bakeware, red apron, holiday CD’s, and kissed my men goodbye. I said a little prayer, and then backed out of the driveway.
It was snowing pretty heavily as I entered the tollbooth on the turnpike. I rolled my window down for the ticket and a gust of air swooshed snowflakes into the car, chilling me. Since I had no CD player,I fidgeted with the radio stations, trying to find classical Christmas music instead of the modernized versions of old carols. Steve wanted to install one in my old vehicle, but seriously, I knew old Bessie probably was going to give up the ghost sooner than later, and I didn’t want to spend money on something frivolous. The radio was fine.
The drive wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected. Salt trucks dotted the highway, and most other people drove as cautiously as me. I pulled triumphantly into my parent’s driveway within an hour, proud of myself for not missing this special baking day over a few inches of snow.
I walked the sidewalk to their house, wistfully remembering the decorations of holidays past. The front yard had held a large sleigh, fake presents and several plastic reindeer. The porch had been home to a huge, outdoor manger scene. ThenDad would wrap strands and strands of the colorful, old time Christmas lights around every bush in his yard and every window in the front of the house. The big lights nobody used anymore which had been hot to the touch, practically a hazard, but no other lights had compared to their vibrant colors. Now, one small snowman stood sentinel, crooked black hat perched atop his head, carrot nose and button eyes. It made me feel sad thinking about my parent’s ages now, and how much effort they had put into the holidays in their younger years. I felt the imminent approach of my own passing of time.
Since my father’s heart surgery a few years ago, my brother Matt didn’t allow Dad to do much of anything. He scolded him when he caught him shoveling snow, or tinkering with gadgets out in the garage. Dad had felt useless at first, and then he discovered crafts.
I smiled to myself thinking of Dad’s new hobbies. He had taken over my brother’s old bedroom, cleared it of almost everything, even the bed. Tons of craft items, parts to miniature classic ships, pieces of balsa wood planes, and my father’s newest passion, dollhouses, covered all surfaces of the room.
The dollhouses were a bonus for him since they took much longer to build. Dad was obsessed as he lovingly and carefully planned the individual rooms of each small home. He went as far as printing up tiny patterns of wallpaper on the computer, pasting them to the walls and hand crafting small wooden furniture items. Some of these were several stories high, and they took up the whole card table Dad used as his workstation. Mom thought they were a waste of time and swore she was going to get rid of all the “junk” in there. Dad told her to just close the door and not let it bother her.
I tapped the front door with the tip of one snow boot, my arms loaded with the items I’d brought with me. After a few minutes, Dad appeared.
“Well, look who’s here,” he said, opening the door and taking the baking pans out of my arms. “Ellen,” he called out. “It’s our daughter.” He winked at me.
Mom walked into the room and I had to laugh. She had a bright red sweatshirt with Rudolph the reindeer and his red nose as a large pompon. On her head was a fuzzy pointed Santa Claus hat.
“You like my festive look?” Mom asked. “Your father thought I lost my mind this morning.”
“No, I’d have to say you look pretty merry, Mom. Come on, let’s get started.” I walked into the kitchen, the warm, wonderful kitchen with its old-fashioned appliances and laid the rest of my things down on the table. I noticed Mom didn’t have anything ready for our baking projects.
Her freshly perked coffee smelled heavenly, and I poured a cup for each of us.
“So you decided to wait for me for a change?” I couldn’t resist a small dig. “No guilt speech, come on, Mom, you’re slipping.”
“Ah, my hip’s killing me today,” she said, limping over to the table and sitting down. “Every time the weather changes drastically, it really pains me.” She pulled the Santa hat from her head and laid it on the table, sipping her coffee.
There it was again. The inference to her age and all the wonderful nuances it brought on. I didn’t like it, none of it. I didn’t like worrying over her and Dad and I certainly didn’t like thinking of myself as becoming older and all the changes it would bring. I’d heard horror stories of hot flashes in some of my friends, night sweats, throwing covers off in the middle of deep slumber, and being unable to fall back asleep for hours after an episode. No, at forty, I wasn’t crazy about this new impending time of life.
Dad walked in just then, and before I had a chance to sit, pulled my arm. “Come here, Kate, I want to show you my latest creation.”
“Ray, she’s got things to do in here,” Mom cranked at him. “Stop bugging her about your stupid dollhouses.” Mom’s mood was certainly in contrast to her cheerful garb.
Ignoring Mom, I followed Dad into his world of miniatures. My mouth dropped open when I saw the latest Victorian dollhouse. Three stories high, a turret, bay windows, shingled roof, and wraparound porch, it had to be the best one ever.
“Wow, Dad, this is amazing.” I walked around it several times taking in the detail. It wasn’t completed yet, but I could see what it would become. Small pieces of furniture lay scattered nearby on the work table, spidery webs of hot glue still stuck to them.
“Look at this, Kate,” Dad said, handing me a small fireplace he had painstakingly put together. Tiny real wood logs sat inside of it and a façade of bricks covered the outside.
I marveled over his patience and skill. Now this was something I could feel good about. Dad hadn’t let his age get to him. When confronted with limitations, he simply found new endeavors he could pursue with gusto. I wanted to be just like him.
Kissing Dad on the cheek, I stood there a minute longer.
“What was that for?” he asked. A sweet smile lit up the handsome face I knew and loved so well.
“That was for you, Dad. I’m so proud of you.”
I rejoined my mother in the kitchen. Her coffee cup sat empty and I poured her another.
“So, what shall we start with today, Mom? Do you want to make pizzelles and lemon knots or something easier first?” I donned the familiar red apron, and without thinking, perched the Santa hat atop my own head. “There, now I’m feeling Christmassy.” I fiddled with the CD player, choosing some of the oldies Christmas music first. Dean Martin’s voice crooned softly from the speakers. I began to hum along.
Mom and I spent the next five hours putting together our usual array of goodies. As always we made the traditional Italian pastries, but also chocolate chip oatmeal cookies for Mark and sugar cookies for my brother and his girlfriend.
It was six p.m. when I finished washing the last of the bowls and baking sheets, drying them carefully and putting them away. Mom was exhausted, I could see it in her eyes, but we’d had fun.
“You want to stay for dinner, honey?” she asked. “I have a roast in the fridge from last night. I could warm it up for you.”
“No thanks, Mom. I really have to head home. The roads are clear, and I don’t want another wave of snow to hit. We’ll see you for Christmas Eve dinner. And remember, I’m bringing most of it. You take it easy this year. You deserve it.” And I kissed the top of her head. After saying my goodbyes to Dad, I left, feeling a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
· * *
Steve’s blazer practically sagged to the ground filled with all the presents and containers of food. I had been up since five a.m. on this glorious Christmas Eve, putting together old favorites and some modern foods I knew my husband and son would eat. Two crock- pots and five large Tupperware containers later, we were ready to set out to my parents. We made this journey every year, eating until we felt we’d burst, and then opening presents together. Since there were so many other relatives to visit, this night had remained a special tradition in my family.
Mark’s eyes were huge as we entered my parents’ home late that afternoon. Their tiny Christmas tree that stood on one end table may have looked scraggly, but the mountain of gifts sitting on the floor beneath it did not. My parents came through again, generous souls to the end.
My brother Matt and his girlfriend Tina arrived a few minutes behind us. Matt was a big guy, almost six feet tall, the giant of our petite, Italian family. Dad joked for many years that Matt had to be the mailman’s son. Tina complimented my brother well. A talkative girl with an easy-going attitude and infectious laugh, we all liked her. They had dated for several years now, and I thought it was only a matter of time before they married.
I missed Matt, and was so glad to see him. Our work schedules prohibited us from spending quality time together.
“Hey sis,” he said, crushing me in one of his huge bear hugs. “Missed you, little one.”
He smelled of Polo cologne, something I always loved, that piney, woodsy scent. Tina hugged me next and we broke into fits of giggles as she whispered what she’d gotten my brother for Christmas.
“Okay, everyone,” Mom said. “Enough of this hugging and affection and let’s head into the dining room and eat. I’m starving.” She had the red Christmas sweatshirt on again, and the Santa hat.
Though the dining room was small, Dad had put the extra leaf into the old mahogany table to accommodate all of us. Mom’s best Christmas dishes adorned it, sparkling crystal goblets which she only took out this time of the year.
I finished up in the kitchen, reheating some of the foods I’d made earlier and plugged in the crockpots, setting them to high.
We always ate buffet style, but first we gathered at our places around the dining room table, holding hands and bowing our heads. All eyes looked to Mom.
“Father God,” she began, “I want to thank you for another year of this family being together. I want to thank you for each and every one of us gathered here tonight. Thank you for our children’s safe arrival, the wonderful meal we are about to eat, the love this family has shared through the years and whatever adventures may lay in our futures. We give all praise and glory to you, in your Son’s name. Amen.”
With that, we lined up in the kitchen and one by one took turns scooping linguini and clams, smelts, haddock, shrimp cocktail and vegetable lasagna, the meatless dishes which made the substance of an Italian family. The chicken cutlets I’d made for my husband and son sat alone in a glass baking dish, and the two heathens proceeded to load their plates with them and side dishes of potatoes and vegetables. I threatened Steve for years if he didn’t try some of the fish dishes, he might be facing eternal damnation. Apparently, the meat lover he was, he didn’t believe me.
Later, as the men cleared dishes from the table, we girls organized the presents in the living room.
At seven o’clock that night, we began our family ritual. Each person took a turn opening one present at a time. This usually took hours. One by one, we oohed and aaahed, complimenting one another on such thoughtful gifts. Nobody could outdo my brother though. Matt made mental notes all year long when talking with any of us, and always chose the most amazing, thoughtful items.
He watched our father’s face carefully on the last colorfully wrapped package. Inside was another wrapped box, a little smaller. Through several layers of paper, a thin, rectangular box was finally revealed. Matt leaned in closely. When Dad opened the lid, I saw his eyes open wide in wonder and surprise. He pulled a watch from the box, and lovingly held it in his hands. A tear slipped out of one eye,
“What the heck?” I asked. No present I’d ever gotten Dad had even come close to this type of reaction.
“Do you all know what this is?” Dad asked. After taking turns shaking all our heads, he told us.
“This is a watch I had as a little boy. My older brother got me one just like it when I was ten. It’s a Lone Ranger watch. See, it has a picture of the masked man sitting on his trusty steed, Silver.” He gazed at it like a lover. “I lost mine when I was a teenager. I never had the heart to tell my brother. It meant so much to him at that time saving up money to get me something so special.” Dad’s voice trailed off and he sat quietly. Apparently the memories made him feel like a little boy once again.
“Matt, that’s awesome,” I said. “How do you find this stuff?”
“EBay, sis,” he said. “I’ve been looking for one for years.”
I watched Mom out of the corner of one eye. She looked tired. I got up to bring in the huge platter of cookies we’d baked together. Offering one to her first, I asked, “Did you have a nice time tonight, Mom? You were a little quieter than usual.”
“I was just thinking,” she said. “Did I ever tell you all about the Christmas Eve when I was ten? The night we had a special visitor?”
“I don’t think so, Mom,” I said. Knowing it was time for one of her long, unusual family tales; we settled in and waited for her to begin. . .
· * *
In 1941 times were tough and money was tight. The war had been raging for a little over a year across the ocean. Now it threatened America as well. Families said goodbye to young sons, watching them head overseas one by one, not knowing if they’d ever see them again. FDR was president, radio was king, big band music was in full bloom and the country was finally emerging from the Great Depression.
In the small steel town of Ambridge, Ellen Romano, ten years old, carried her coat and schoolbooks on an unusually warm December day. It had been a little disappointing since snow hadn’t fallen yet, and she worried it wouldn’t be a white Christmas. With only two weeks to go, it had been such a strange winter.
Ellen walked past the newly- built middle school at the corner of the long hill leading to her street. A few kids stood around outside playfully jabbing at one another, girls flirting with boys and vice versa. Ellen waved to a girl she knew.
She approached her own block, taking her time, all the while watching for signs of her father’s car. She breathed a sigh of glorious relief when her house was in view. Papa’s old Dodge wasn’t anywhere in sight. Maybe he’d work late tonight and they’d have some peace. God knew it had been tough recently. With money so precious and tight, and her father’s gambling, they had to make due many times with much less food on their table. And if Papa lost in his card games, and his drinking worsened, he’d take it out on their family. Many nights Ellen lay in bed unable to sleep, fingers plugged in her ears, her father’s angry voice bellowing, and the sound of a slap, or of a piece of overturned furniture. Many nights, she held onto her sister, Claire as they waited for the blessed silence which would finally come. But when Papa finally passed out from drunkenness, the heartbreaking sound of their mother’s sobs would begin.
Her mother’s careworn face broke into a smile as Ellen walked through the door. Mama had a huge apron tied around herself, flour up to her elbows, and a hair net pulled over her short curly permanent wave.
“How was school, cara mia?”Mom asked. “What did you learn?” Ellen pulled a chair from under the kitchen table and sat looking at her mother. Her brother and sister weren’t home from high school just yet. This was precious one on one time with Mama.
“Oh, Mama, I learned how to multiply numbers today. I’m getting so good at it,” Ellen said reaching for a small pinch of her mother’s dough and making a little ball with it.
“That’s good then,” Mama said. “I didn’t have the opportunities you do when I was your age. I had to quit school to help take care of my brothers and sisters. You kids are so fortunate today.” Mama plopped a huge slab of dough onto her floured board. “I’m trying to get some ciambelles made for Christmas Eve dinner at Aunt Angie’s house. You know how much your Papa loves them.”
Ellen groaned inwardly. Papa was coming to Christmas Eve dinner then. He had missed several years in a row, preferring to spend the special night playing cards with a bunch of other drunken men down at the local S.O.I. club. He hadn’t had the decency to show up for their dinners before. No matter. Christmas Eve was such a warm, wonderful night. So many of her cousins, aunts and uncles would be there, gathered at Aunt Angie’s house. There would be laughter, stories, games, and a small gift stocking for each small child filled with an apple, orange or some type of fruit, nuts or maybe even a small trinket. Oh, Ellen couldn’t wait.
· * *
A few days before Christmas Eve, it hit. One of the biggest snowstorms ever.With it being an unusually balmy winter, the snow was a complete surprise and Ellen awoke to the brightness of the morning, huge, fat flakes cascading outside her window. She jumped up in the flannel nightgown she wore, running over to the window, wiping at the frosty pane with her sleeve for a better view.
Her sister Claire rolled over in bed, clucking her tongue in anger. “What’s wrong with you, little girl? We have at least another hour to sleep.” Claire pulled the bed covers over her head and sighed.
“It’s here, Claire! The snow has finally come! Oh, I’m so happy,” Ellen said, doing a little dance around the room.
“You won’t be so happy when you wake Papa up,” Claire mumbled from under the covers. “He was up pretty late last night. Hush up.”
Nothing could stop her glee at this moment. Not even her father.
A little later, Ellen and her sister sat in their tiny kitchen eating bowls of Cream of Wheat. Mama was a little quieter than usual. She had dark circles under her eyes and her hands shook as she served her girls.
“What’s wrong, Mama? Where’s Tony?” Ellen asked, referring to her older brother.
At that, she saw Mama’s face grow pale. “Shhh, quiet, young one,” Mama said. “Your brother got in big trouble last night. I let him sleep in today.”
Apparently, Tony had gone out late with his friends. He was sixteen years old, and turning into a regular night owl. He and the boys played cards sometimes at each other’s houses. But last night, he hadn’t been home by his usual curfew of ten p.m. Papa sat up waiting for him and when Tony strolled in at midnight with the smell of whiskey on his breath; their father had almost killed him. He had beat Tony with his belt, while Mama tried to intervene. It had been no use, and when Papa was done, Tony defiantly looked at him and said, “See, now I’m just like you.” Their father had gone to bed then, apparently exhausted from his murderous rage.
“So you see, girls,” Mama said. “It’s not such a good day for me. My dear son, my poor boy.”
Ellen got up from her place at the table and hugged her mother. Mama, always a little embarrassed by the show of affection, brushed her away.
“Now girls, go. Have a good day at your schools. When you come home tonight, we’ll finish our meal preparations together for Christmas Eve, okay?”
Ellen buttoned up her coat, grabbed her books and looked at her sister. Claire appeared to be lost in her own world. As the girls left, they walked in silence for a while.
“I heard the fight last night,” Claire said unable to look at her sister. “I’m so glad you were fast asleep. I don’t think you could have taken it, Ellen.” Claire pulled her threadbare coat a bit more tightly around herself shivering. “Papa’s so mean. I hate him. Sometimes I wish he’d die.”
“Oh, Claire, you mustn’t say such things. It’ll come back on us.” Ellen quickly said a prayer and made the sign of the evil eye at her sister.
Both girls walked on in silence, Ellen kicking up tufts of snow before her.
In school though, Ellen couldn’t shake her own bad feelings. Why? Why did Papa have to be so mean? Her good brother didn’t deserve the beating he’d gotten last evening. He was always such a great young man. So what if he messed up one time, didn’t their stupid father do that when he was young?
And what about Mama? Ellen had seen her father on several drunken occasions grab his wife and shake her, while she and her siblings sat cowering in fear. She’d remembered hearing stories of Papa’s father, a hostile, bitter man who ruled his wife and children with his hateful fists. Was it any wonder her father could be so unkind then?
God, if you’re there, please show me a sign. Show me some type of kindness or let me know you hear me. We can’t go on like this. I’m so afraid, God. Please, please help Papa to change.
Later that night, Tony sat at the kitchen table while Mama was rolling out homemade pasta noodles. He helped her cut the long strands into thin strips. When Ellen walked through the kitchen door, she ran to her brother, squeezing him tightly. And when Papa came home from the steel mill later, he was reserved. There was no talk at the family table during supper, just the scrape of forks against plates in the silence of the kitchen.
· * *
The snow continued into Christmas Eve. At least eight inches lay on the ground, the sparkling diamonds of crusty snow in piles.
Ellen, Claire, Mama and Tony trudged the five blocks to Aunt Angie’s house. Papa, the only driver in their family was asleep from working a late night shift and would join them afterward. Each of them carried satchels filled with foods and baked goods Mama had prepared. They wore their warmest winter coats, rubber galoshes and mittens. It was still snowing lightly as they approached Angie’s home; beautiful fat flakes with lacy patterns landing on bushes. To Ellen, absolutely nothing could steal her joy on this late afternoon.
Uncle Eddie and Aunt Ida were just arriving when they reached the house, followed by their children, Annie, Patsy and Bobo. Grandma Adelina leaned heavily on her cane, as Uncle Eddie carefully guided his mother-in-law across the snowy path. “Come, Mama,” Eddie said to her, helping her up the porch steps.
Ellen’s favorite cousin, Wally, was already in the house when she walked through the door. A regular prankster, nobody could make her laugh the way he did. He was one year older, but so small; people usually mistook him for a young child. Wally was the third of four children, Aunt Angie’s favorite. He sneaked behind Ellen when she entered the kitchen with her parcels.
“Boo!” Wally said, laying his hand on Ellen’s shoulder. Ellen jumped and screamed, almost dropping the bag of homemade cookies.
“Silly goose,” she said. “I knew you were there all the time.” She went up to other aunts and cousins, handing over all she’d been carrying as Mama and Claire walked in behind her.
There had never been anything like the foods prepared in Aunt Angie’s kitchen. Artichokes in olive oil, pasta with tuna sauce, baccala fish, smelts, fried green peppers and roman beans. Ellen’s mouth watered as she looked at the feast spread before her. Mama brought struffoli, little dough balls soaked in honey, ciambelles, hard Italian biscuits and a huge bag of wine cookies, flaky on the inside and a bit crispy on the outside. Aunt Ida pulled homemade bread from her own satchel along with soft buns, their outer edges crusty brown. Wine decanters were placed on the table with a small bottle of anisette. It didn’t matter none of these people were well-to-do. What mattered on this night, they were rich in their heritage, love of family, and anticipation of the birth of the savior.
“Is Sam coming, Louisa?” Angie asked her sister, after taking her coat and hanging it on the cellar landing.
“Yes, he was sleeping. He should be here before we start to eat.” Ellen watched her mother carefully as she said this. Nothing in Mama’s face betrayed her emotions. She was stoic to the last, and nobody in the family knew about Papa’s drinking and temper.
At six p.m. promptly, the family gathered around the table for the blessing when Papa walked through the door. He made a striking figure, coal black hair, neatly trimmed moustache. If she hadn’t been so frightened of him, Ellen would think her papa was one of the most handsome men in town. He took his place at his wife’s side, and all were silent for a moment. Uncle Carmen, Angie’s husband, usually a man of very few words, said the blessing.
In Italian, Carmen spoke of God’s goodness and bounty. He thanked Him for providing work for all of them, and warm houses, food on the table. He thanked his heavenly father for watching over their sons who fought in the terrible war. He thanked God for his wife and children and all who were gathered together in their home. When he finished, each man held a glass of wine before them, and toasted, “salute” to each other.
Aunt Angie set to work, heaping dishes with steaming foods. By the time the last small child had been served, all eyes looked to the matriarch of the family, Adelina. She smiled her toothless grin, and said the words they all had been waiting for: “Mangia, tutti!” Everyone, eat!
Ellen watched her mother out of the corner of one eye as she wolfed down pasta. Mama seemed content, Papa’s hand rested atop hers, giving a little squeeze of affection from time to time. Talk was light and fun, each person adding a little something to the conversation as they continued their meal.
Cousin Giorgio brought his accordion out after dinner, while the men retired to the cellar to continue drinking glasses of homemade dago red. The children helped their mama’s clear the table, putting away leftovers and helping wash dishes.
Ellen and Wally got the messy job of bagging garbage to bring out to the tin can behind the house. As they put on their coats, a soft knock sounded at the front door. Everyone glanced around at one another, nobody else was expected. Perhaps a neighbor stopping by to wish them goodwill.
“I’ll get it, Mama,” Wally said, running from the room.
Naturally, Ellen thought, anything to get out of helping me. She dropped the bag of garbage she’d collected, following Wally into the living room. Wally opened the front door and there, before the two children on the porch stood a man, shabbily dressed, hardly enough clothing on a night such as this. Old dungarees and work boots, flannel shirt and no coat. A blast of frigid air blew into the room. The man stood there, rubbing his hands together, his rheumy eyes darting between the two children.
The first thing Ellen noticed besides the strange gentleman, it had stopped snowing. In the glow of the streetlamps, the last of the fallen snow glistened under the cast of the lights. The next thing she noticed was not another soul was out. Nobody walking, no neighbors outside their homes.
“Would you kind folks be able to spare me something to eat tonight?” The man’s gravelly voice startled Ellen out of her reverie. Had she heard him correctly? Barely enough to feed all of them and he wanted some of it? But on the tail end of that thought, Ellen became ashamed. Poor man looked as if he hadn’t had a meal in a long time.
It was Wally who broke the silence. “Come in, sir,” he said, motioning for the man to enter. “Wait here.” He and Ellen ran to the kitchen, breathless with excitement.
“What’s going on?” Angie asked, drying the last of the metal sauce pots.
“Mama, there’s a man at the door,” Wally said, catching his breath. “He says he’s so very hungry and would we have something to spare?”
Ellen stood behind Wally, waiting to see what the grownups would do.
Aunt Angie broke the silence of the moment. “Let me go see him.” She walked from the kitchen, her dish towel still clasped in one chubby hand. Ellen and Wally stood close by.
The man stood perfectly still, his eyes almost dreamy in the warmth of the home. He appeared to be whispering something, lost in his own world. Ellen thought he must be feeble or crazy.
“Well hello there,” Angie said, walking over to the man. His eyes opened wider and a smile broke out on the homely face. It appeared to light up his countenance, and for a moment, he didn’t seem so scary.
“I’m so very sorry to bother you tonight, ma’am,” he said in that growly voice. “You see, I’m so terribly hungry. I haven’t been home in a while. I just wondered if you perhaps had a little food to spare.”
It was then Ellen noticed a change on the man’s face, and how blue and piercing his eyes became as he looked directly at her aunt.
Angie began to protest for a moment. “Well, I’m sorry, but we barely have enough for ourselves.” She was interrupted by Ellen’s mother.
“Nonsense,” Louisa said, putting her hand on her sister’s arm. “A few of us already packed some things for you.” She handed a paper sack to the man, its sides bulging, and the heavenly aroma of the foods pouring from it.
“It’s fine, Angie,” Mama said. “Please, take it, and have a Merry Christmas.”
Ellen’s heart burst with pride for her mother, a kind, good woman who would give the last of her own food to another.
“Bless you all,” the man said, accepting the parcel and holding it tightly as if they’d change their mind and take it back. “You have no idea how much this means.” He turned to go.
Angie walked ahead of him, and began to open the door. An icy blast of wind blew into the room, and Ellen wanted to protest. Couldn’t he just stay there with them and eat his meal? Where would he go? Did he have family nearby perhaps?
As if he read her mind, the stranger turned to face Ellen and said the most perplexing thing. “Your prayer has been heard.” With that, he walked out the door and into the night.
The women went back to the kitchen. They talked among themselves of the strange man and the odd things he had said. The sound of the accordion rose from the basement with the voices of their men singing.
Ellen and Wally looked at one another. “Wally,” Ellen whispered. “I’m scared. Why do you suppose he spoke to me like that? What does it mean?” Her curiosity got the better of her and scared or not, she wanted to see where he was headed. “Let’s walk outside and see where he goes. I’m dying to know.”
The two children slipped out onto the front porch. It had only been a moment or so since the man had gone. They peered in both directions up and down the block, across the street at the other houses. No sign of him. It was then Wally piped up, his eyes widening, his finger pointing at the ground.
“Look, Ellen,” he said. “Would you just look? There isn’t a footprint out here, not one. It was snowing earlier, and it stopped when we were eating.” Wally’s eyes looked about to pop from their sockets.
“I don’t understand,” Ellen said, shivering a little in the cold. “What do you mean?” Then it dawned on her. There would have been some type of footprints on the porch or the walkway which led to the house. The man had some big laced up boots on his feet, and they would have imprinted in the snow. “What in the world?” Ellen walked off the porch, again looking in every direction. No footprints on the sidewalk either way. It was as if he’d disappeared.
They ran into the house. “Mom!” Wally screamed. “Come here!” Angie, Louisa and Ida came into the living room, questioning him.
“No footprints! He just vanished into the night!” Wally tugged at his mother, hurrying her out onto the front porch.
“Well, I’ll be. . .” Angie said.
· * *
Ellen lay in her bed unable to sleep that night. She turned on her side toward Claire and sighed.
“What, baby girl? Why are you so fidgety tonight?” Claire sat up leaning on one elbow.
“Claire, did you notice how extra kind Papa seemed tonight? Even though he’d been drinking with the others, he seemed, somehow . . . different.” Ellen flipped the light switch on her bedside table. “I, I prayed about him to God today. I, I think He heard my prayers.”
“What do you mean, Ellen?” Claire asked, reaching for her sister’s hand.
“I think that ugly man who showed up at Aunt Angie’s tonight was an angel, Claire. I think he came to deliver a special message to me.”
Claire laughed then. “Nonsense, Ellen, he was a poor lonely soul, looking for a meal. He probably had a wife and children in some dirty apartment nearby and shared his food with them.”
“No,” Ellen protested, sitting up and pulling her hand away from her sister’s touch. “No, it was really an angel. We learned a bible verse in Sunday school one time. Here, it’s in my notebook. I’ll read it to you.”
Ellen got up from bed to retrieve her bible school notebook from the corner desk in their room. She leafed through it under the glow of the bedside lamp. “Here it is, Claire, look.”
“Be careful to entertain strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Ellen shut the notebook. “Don’t you see, God answered my prayer.He sent us an angel to test us, and we passed the test. Mama’s kindness will be rewarded.” Ellen shut the light and whispered in the darkness. “Did you know he said something to me before he walked out the door?” When her sister didn’t answer, she continued. “He said your prayer has been heard.”
“You’re making that up,” Claire said. “You shouldn’t lie about such things.”
“Ask Wally, Claire. He heard it too. I’m telling you, the man disappeared, there wasn’t one footprint, and he did say that to me. And Claire, his face . . . changed. He was so scary looking when I first saw him, and when he spoke to Aunt Angie and thanked Mama, his face became almost beautiful.”
“You read too many stories and listen to too many radio shows. Get some sleep. We’ll talk about it another time.” Claire lay back down and turned her back toward her sister. Ellen lay there a while longer, silently giving thanks to God for hearing her prayer. She just knew things were going to get better with her Papa. Why else would God send His messenger to them?
· * *
My mother finished the tale, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her Christmas sweatshirt. I got up, fished a Kleenex out of the box, and handed it to her. I sat next to her, hugging her tightly. Nobody spoke for a few minutes.
It was then my son piped up. “Gram, did your father really change after that night? What happened?” He sat on the edge of his seat, and it made me feel good knowing he’d listened to her story so carefully and perhaps had been touched by it.
Mom looked up, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. “Well, yes, he did. It wasn’t big changes at first, but little by little we all noticed something different about him. He stopped gambling after that Christmas, which was a pretty big deal for him. I overheard him talking with my mother late into the night after the New Year that he’d had a dream of some sort, a vision perhaps of himself as a lonely, old man without his family. All his money was gone, and we were all gone as well. He said he saw himself in a filthy, roach-infested apartment, cold and scared. I think the dream terrified him, and I have no doubt it was another intervention by my ‘angel’. He was much kinder to my mother after that, but he still drank at times though. I guess some things were easier for him to work on than others.” Mom reached for the platter of cookies, biting into her ciambelle, the crumbs from the crusty biscuit falling into her lap. She absently brushed them away and sighed.
“I believe you, Gram,” Mark said. “I heard that same bible verse in church one time. Wow, you were pretty lucky. I’ve never had anything that neat happen to me.” Mark got up and reached for his favorite cookies, piling them onto a small paper plate I had laid near the platter.
We all sat there content in the company of our loved ones. Mom’s story had touched each one of us I could tell. Faraway looks on faces, reverential silence. It was the best Christmas story we’d ever heard.
At ten minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, my husband and I sat with our crystal goblets of Asti Spumante near us. The last embers of the fire Steve had built earlier glowed in the darkness, the smell of the wood smoke lightly in the air. The Christmas tree lights twinkled in the dimness. Mark lay on the lazy boy recliner, fast asleep. I thought back to the past year and all that happened. I felt blessed, warm and loved. Steve traced the top of my hand lightly with the tip of one finger.
“What are you thinking about, beautiful?” he asked.
“Just how blessed we are, and how grateful I am for you, Mark and my family.”
The ball began to drop on the television set before us, the last numbers of the old year ticking away. Steve raised his glass, clinking it to mine and we took a sip as Auld Lang Syne played in the background. We put our glasses down and kissed long and hard as the new number of the year flashed on the TV, 2001. We’d come through Y2K and all the fear the media had thrown at us surrounding the possible meltdowns and madness that was supposed to happen. 2001, a year filled with promise and hope. I just knew it would be a great one, monumental.
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