My earliest memories of Christmas began each Thanksgiving night, on Washington Street.
The turkey platter and bone China had been washed and dried, stacked neatly on the hutch. Likewise the pewter platters. My aunt or mother would shake the crumbs off of the well-starched tablecloth, clucking, while fussing over a stubborn stain of some sort and thus hastening to the basement, murmuring about white vinegar and grease, while tossing the massive heap into the washing machine, along with bunches of soiled cloth napkins.
My grandmother bent low into the hutch, pulling out another pressed tablecloth, flinging the covering through the air with a whoosh over the sturdy table as the kettle heated for tea. The men and grandchildren were scattered: some in the living room chatting or playing cards, others napping upstairs, belts loosened a few notches after such a fine feast.
But as soon as the tea kettle whistled, everyone emerged from their preferred nooks and gathered back around the table again, grabbing a sterling silver fork and spoon. It was finally time for pie and ice cream. Grandma was known far and wide for her apple and squash pies–her crust reigned supreme. I am grateful to use that recipe today, as I have yet to taste any pie crust that comes even close to hers.
The adults poured the hottest of tea with lemon and sugar into delicate heirloom teacups, resting their spoons on matching saucers. Grandpa, forever the cold one, slipped his beloved beanie onto his balding head before descending the narrow steps to their frigid, New England basement. He shuffled about their deep freezer, as it was called, lugging a five-gallon container of Brigham’s vanilla ice cream back upstairs into the kitchen, smiling contentedly at my little brother while scooping heaping portions of delicious goodness into everyone’s bowl.
This is what I loved most about Grandpa: he lived large, and he lived to serve. Selfless I tell you. No cheap brands of anything would suffice. Quality and generosity mattered and he gave everything that was good in deep abundance, and with wild abandon.
Once the ice cream was served, Grandpa unwrapped and placed a box of Andes mints on the table. At this precise moment, unbeknownst to anyone, a shiver ran down my spine and I knew that Christmas was finally near.
I savored the slice of pie and ice cream, not only because they were so tasty, but because dessert prompted the beginning of family stories. This seemed neither planned nor rehearsed. It just happened, quite naturally, year by year. After a moment of sweet silence, with only: Mmmmmmm, Libby this is delicious, the best pie ever, or Thank you, Grandma! someone would share of days gone by, my aunts and uncles and grandparents painting vivid pictures of memories that seemed both odd and wonderful to me. Stories that rounded out a fuller, different family portrait than I was accustomed to viewing.
Apparently, Grandma and Grandpa were once so strapped for cash that Grandpa had taken on three jobs to care for their family of seven.
Wait a minute. I thought. My Grandpa, this fantastic gentleman who drives a Volvo and wears finely polished dress shoes and tailored business suits to work once worked an extra job cleaning ship decks on the wharf in Boston? How could this even be?
I leaned in, folding and refolding the pretty foil wrapper of my Andes mint as I reached for another.
One year, when my mother was only a baby, Grandpa’s knee swelled-angry and hot and tender, days after working a shift at the shipyards. It gradually worsened over the course of a week, until he was bedridden, tossing and nearly delirious with raging fever. In desperation my grandmother rang for the doctor, who in those days made speedy house calls. He swiftly punctured Grandpa’s knee to drain the infection, and to everyone’s complete horror, pulled a lengthy, spaghetti-like thread of pus from his leg. According to both of my grandparents, he pulled and pulled and pulled this thin string of contagion (Yes, it was exactly like a string! Grandpa reiterated) from his knee, a task which seemed terrifyingly unending. The doctor had never seen anything like it. Once out, the fever quickly subsided and Grandpa healed nicely.
Bob would have died, if I hadn’t called the doctor, said Grandma, matter-of-factly, with precious little tact as she popped another mint.
Grandpa noted my wide eyes, and calmly changed course.
Oh Libby, it wasn’t that serious. He winked at me. I am here, alive and well, aren’t I?
Well, according to the doctor–she continued as he put his hand firmly on her arm.
Little pitchers, Lib. Little pitchers.
And that was that.
Thanksgiving was also a time for funny stories to be retold. Some sagas that I had lived through and could actually remember.
Like that one Easter dinner on Washington Street. There were probably fifteen of us clustered around the table, famished after a long church service and ample drive back to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house. Grandpa said grace, and my uncle, starving, quickly heaped salad onto his dish, while reaching for the bottle of House Italian. The oil had separated from the spices, so he began to vigorously shake the dressing, not realizing that the lid had already been removed.
As the dressing catapulted airborne, hitting the ceiling, he shouted, Libby is going to kill me!
We roared at his retelling, laughing until we cried, because he was right: My grandmother, squeaky-clean, had looked grimly at her white ceiling, now dotted with impossible-to-clean House Italian. She was not pleased.
Some humorous stories retold had unfolded long before my birth. Such as the time my uncle, the firstborn, left for college. My grandmother was beside herself, missing him, and telling her four younger children, ad nauseam, how awful it was to have one less dinner plate at the table. She spoke about this so often, that everyone grew weary of the same tired story, repeated night after night.
Finally, as Thanksgiving mercifully approached my grandmother hatched a brilliant plan. She would bake an entire extra pie before the actual holiday, since her favored son adored this dish above all others.
I will make him his own pie for his first night back! she declared triumphantly. For him only!
Everyone rolled their eyes and left her to it.
She gushed when he walked through the front door, proudly displaying the pretty pie. I made an entire apple pie, just for you!
Thanks Ma, he said, kissing her cheek.
After dinner, and to no one’s surprise, she made an exaggerated ordeal out of serving him his very own dessert, as the remainder of the family looked on, miserably.
And then he took a bite.
This, he said, is the worst pie I have ever tasted.
In her day-dreamy excitement, my grandmother had forgotten to add the sugar.
All of us grandchildren giggled as the adults howled, hitting their hands on the table for good measure. The funniest part was that she did not miss him quite so much after that dinner scene. Or if she did, she didn’t let on.
There were a few mildly scandalous stories as well. One was told in bits and pieces, adults tiptoeing carefully, leaving out the most important, and sordid details.
When my grandparents were newly married, Grandpa’s widowed mother fell on hard times. Grandpa’s sister, many years his junior, was still in high school, and Grandpa offered to move them both into his (and Grandma’s) newly purchased home.
Whenever this story was rehashed, which was every few years, I held my breath. There were clearly missing puzzle pieces, and although I was young, I felt the vibe. The move-in arrangement lasted for a remarkably brief time. Grandma always sighed, eyebrows furrowed and frowning with: Elsie was so difficult and Carolyn was a brat.
Grandpa said little, looking down. He loved his mother and sister and his wife. It was terribly complicated, whatever happened, and I got the impression that my honorable grandfather was covering for his wife.
So there was far more to it, (isn’t there always?), which is a story unto itself. But I will say this: one of my earliest, and fondest memories of all included this Elsie Francis, my Grandpa’s mother, my great-grandmother. Once upon a time she had welcomed me into her humble apartment, a place so fresh and inviting, smelling of lemon oil and peppermint, and comfortably adorned with a slender vase of flowers perched elegantly on her fragile kitchen table.
Her face was openly kind….so much like Grandpa’s, that I took to her immediately, at the tender age of four. She gifted me with a wide green scrapbook, full of blank pages, plus a full bottle of rubber cement, placing a stack of fanciful magazines at my side, with a pair of scissors.
Kristin, you may cut and paste anything that you wish from these old magazines. She peered over her glasses at me. And I also have some exquisite alphabet stickers. I will help you spell out words for your scrapbook.
So the adults visited and I created. The afternoon flew by, and I did not want to leave this peaceful, warm home.
The scrapbook disappeared over the years, but when I close my eyes, I can see my name, spelled golden and sparkly in foil, heavenly letters that were of remarkable quality, made to last.
Yes, she was the measure of my Grandpa, a woman of depth, and despite her meager income, she remained a lady, full of class. This was plain for anyone to see.
Make something lovely, she had said as she smiled widely, speaking to me with purpose, and free of dreadful baby talk. She expected more and it definitely prompted me to rise to the challenge.
Make something lovely.
I never forgot her directive.
Most adults chose to shoo children along with a distracted: Go play.
Grandpa once informed me that his mother was a kind and very stubborn woman. So there was that, as well. Stories are rarely linear in nature.
So yes, Thanksgiving stories repeated around the table were infused with greater meaning than the actual story itself. I was learning the importance of paying attention to every word, every nuance.
It is sad to think of the many stories left untapped, wasted because they remain untold, unwritten, and forgotten.
I firmly believe that God gives us lives full of stories to share.
After a time, on these majestic Thanksgiving evenings so long ago, when the inky, star-studded skies grew cold and the adult conversations turned to boring matters, my brother and cousins and I scooted upstairs to my grandparents’ tv room. There were two recliners in the small space, but we preferred to line the carpet instead, resting on our stomachs, elbows propping our faces, as children often do. We cranked the television knob until we found the first Christmas movie of the season.
Hooray! We cheered, clearly on an exhausted sugar high. Usually the movie was Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. We often fell asleep in that warm and comfortable upstairs, as the fireplace crackled downstairs and the adults kept pouring hot tea and reminiscing.
Sometimes, our family even spent the night, if the conversation went long and my parents were too spent for that forty-five-minute drive home. If we were especially lucky, my brother and I were allowed to sleep in my grandparents’ bedroom, our green sleeping bags sprawled on the floor alongside their enormous king bed. Grandpa usually snored, which kept me awake, but I didn’t mind.
It was not as though I could sleep anyway. Excitement was in the air.
Yes, Thanksgiving was over, and we could now spend the next morning helping Grandpa putter around, while taking his time setting up his favorite Christmas decorations of all.
Decorations which prompted quite a stir.
(Return next Thursday, for Part II)