Most people would write that their favorite Christmas memory took place in childhood and certainly I had many happy and wonderful Christmases with my brother and sister and cousins. But my favorite Christmas memory was the year when all the children were little and we gathered for Christmas at Mom and Dad's home.
They lived in a neighborly section of Brooklyn, New York, composed of mainy one and two family homes. White stone steps we called a stoop led to the first floor of their three story house. Outside the sights, sounds, and smells were of a crowded multi-ethnic city : bus back fires, car horns, arguing drunks, bumper to bumper parking, scurrying people, and the clash of cooking odors Italian, Polish, Oriental, and Middle Eastern . Inside was home.
The living room and dining room were open rooms making the area seem larger. Across the archway separating the two rooms was stretched a plastic garland of Christmas greenery and hung with handpainted balls, each one decorated with a different family member's name. The fake Christmas tree stood with mixmatched tree lights besides the double windows. Underneath the tree was a manger and a mound of gifts in shopping bags, one for each family group.
The mouthwatering smell of lasagna and turkey cooking made our stomachs growl with hunger even though we'd all had a big breakfast. Around the room were snack tables covered with dishes of finger foods to appease our appetites until dinner.
Mom and Dad sat on the couch like the King and Queen of our hearts which they were, waiting for all the family to arrive. Mine , coming from the longest distance had arrived earlier in the week and had stayed over. We were there, my husband, son and myself waiting for the others. Then my sister and her two children arrived, followed within a short time by my brother, his wife and two little girls. Once we were all gathered, the annual Christmas ceremony began.
Each child had a gift for Nana and Papa . One by one they took turns bringing their offerings to their grandparents . No gift was too small . Everything was treasured from a handmade card, to a sloppily glued homemade ornament. There were other gifts, purchased by the parents and handed to the grandparents by the children. I shall never forget seeing my parents, Mom with silver in her brown hair, her wrinkled face wreathed with a smile, and Dad contentedly resting against the couch back, surrounded by all their grandchildren amidst mounds of gift wrap and ribbon. The children all seemed to talk at once, though my parents somehow managed to pay attention to each one individually.
After the grandparents had received their gifts, and many hugs and kisses; it was the children's turn. Eagerly they tore at their packages, tossing gift wrap into the air. While my sister, brother and I stood under the archway watching, the room was litterly covered with tissue, wrap and ribbons underneath which were squealing , delighted children tearing open their boxes, and trying our their new toys.
When the initial melee was over, we cleaned up the discarded paper and left the children in the living room to play with their toys. Dad always took time to play a game or two with the kids, and Mom made all the appropriate oohs and aahs over Barbie dolls and other delights thrust into her hands by chubby little ones.
It was hectic, getting everyone together with their families. We traveled a hundred and fifty miles from Connecticut, rain, shine or snowstorm to be with my parents. My brother woke his children early every Christmas to open their gifts at home, then bundle them up for the ride to Nana and Papa's, and my sister, who lived around the corner, gave up Christmas in her own beautifully decorated apartment to be with us all.
After the gifts were exchanged, the men set the table with the good china and Mom's special gold plated flatware. In the small, too-hot kitchen, we women finished the food preparations Mom had started earlier that morning. Then we all gathered around the extended dining room table, squeezing in so that all thirteen of us could fit. On this special occassion, Dad bought champagne and we toasted each other, ending with a special thanksgiving to God for allowing us another year to all be together. Then we women would cart out the food until the entire table was filled with antipasto, lasagne, a bowl of meatballs and spareribs, and a huge turkey with stuffing and marshmellowed sweat potatoes.
We ate, we talked, we passed the food. Then too soon dinner was over and the children hurried off to play again with their toys. Papa ambled into the living room with the grandchildren who he called his "chippies". The rest of us cleaned up the table . But Christmas wasn't over yet. Mom put on the coffee and I took out the Italian pastries which Dad had bought fresh from the Italian bakery. There was riccota filled cannoli, creamy Napoleon's, rum cake and others whose names I forget.My sister-in-law made pumpkin pie, and I had brought banana cream. This one year my sister brought a special rich chocolate candy house decorated with candy cane posts and gumdrop bushes she had made.
We were all tired yet no one wanted to end the day early. It wasn't often we all got together as our busy lives separated us. So Mom took out two decks of cards and we played a friendly game of baseball or dealer's choice with pennies for our bets.
The pennies were kept on the radiator in old margarine containers. Each person counted out what they wanted and played with that amount. It didn't matter who won or lose. The game was an excuse to keep us all at the table while the children were busy in the other room. We caught up on bits and pieces of each other's lives, laughed at silly jokes and teased each other the way we had as kids. Mom and Dad laughed a lot, and Dad had suspicious glimmer of tears in his eyes as he looked at us.
All too soon, it was time for the day to end. The children were tired and ready for bed, and Mom and Dad were stifling yawns. Packages of left over food were wrapped up and handed to each family and then off everyone went to their separate homes, their separate lives.
This Christmas scene was repeated many times over the years, even as the children grew older. Belief in Santa Claus was handed down from Gina the oldest to Rob, the next in age, to Billy, her brother, and then to the youngest, Karen and Julie.
I remember one Christmas when Rob, my son, and Billy,my nephew, were both young teens. There was still excitement in the air over the gifts though it wasn't as hectic as when they were all younger. Still, the living room was filled with various games and toys. After my brother and his wife left with their girls, the boys and Gina went down to the basement to watch TV and play. It was quiet in the living room with just Mom and I sitting together on the couch and my sister on the footstool sit.
Mom rested her tired head on a pillow on the couch. Dad sat in the kitchen with my husband watching the end of a football game. Mom softly said, "It was a good Christmas wasn't it?"
"Yes," I replied, the aftermath of the exciting day bringing tears to my eyes. "The children were a bit wild though, just like us when we were kids," I said. "Amazing how you put up with us."
Mom shook her head slowly, "No, they were good...just like you children." Her voice drifted off a moment, "Yes," she nodded, you were all good children."
It was her last Christmas with us. I remembered her words which were a blessing. When we three were little we used to drive my mother wild. So much so her blood pressure spiked when we were kids. And yet in the end all she remembered was the happy times with the benediction, "You were good children."