Friday, November 30, 2007

Not So Silent Night

1968: I’m home for Christmas break from the University of Wisconsin, spending another big holiday with my family. We celebrate big because we are blessed with two precious little ones—actually, one and a half. My nephew, Mikey, is a toddler. My niece, April, is nearly five months from birth—so tiny in her mom’s tummy, there’s no visible sign of her yet. This is the last time she’ll ever be subtle.

The previous year, we all survived the horrendous Chicago snowstorm of 1967. That, in and of itself, is some kind of miracle. It gave us monumental family bonding time. The entire metropolitan area was snowed in solid. We couldn’t leave the house for a week except to walk to the corner store and carry home necessities by sled. I can still hear my mother swearing about the SOBs who jacked up their prices, taking advantage of people during a crisis.

“Those jackasses! Bleeding money out of mothers that need milk for their babies…” These loud outbursts of cursing and carrying on and protectiveness of all mothers occurred at least three or four times a day—not only after my cousin Tony brought back what we needed on my classic flyer sled, but each time she heard these atrocities reported on the news.

By comparison, winter 1968 was a contrast in calm. Our family tradition is to celebrate on Christmas Eve—big dinner, presents, then Midnight Mass. Christmas Day is more of an aftermath for us—a time for the kids to play with toys and the grown-ups to veg in front of the TV, watching holiday specials. In this case, after the hoopla and snowla of ’67, we were looking forward to our first winter celebration since then and a more Norman Rockwell Silent Night.

Instead of doing Christmas at my parents’ in the suburbs, as usual, my brother Nick insisted on hosting us at his large apartment in Chicago. Nick was flamboyant. He loved anything new and different, so surely, this would not be an ordinary Christmas. He had only recently learned that he was going to be a father, and I think the gleam in his eye threw off his vision a bit.

Dinner seemed to start backwards. Nick spent an inordinate amount of time doing—and redoing—dessert.

“These ^&*^*()!! cream puffs! This is the third time I’ve done these damn things. I just can’t get ‘em right.”

Frustrated, Nick called Cousin Ginny. He had gotten the recipe from her. Lots of long pauses on his end of the conversation.

“Well, thanks a lot, Virginia,” he said, oozing sarcasm like cream in the supposed puffs that were flat as pancakes.

“What’s wrong?” Ma asked.

“She forgot to give me the magic ingredient—baking soda. That’s why they wouldn’t rise.”

Maybe his pregnant wife had him fixated on puffy things, but to his credit, Nick did not give up and whipped up one more batch of cream puffs while he roasted the chestnuts.

Since he didn’t have a fireplace, Nick, being creative, just stuck them in the oven.

Nick figured we should start eating while the nuts roasted, which were just a snack, anyway, given the built-in delays of his stubborn dessert. My mother’s Italian custom was a meatless Christmas Eve dinner, including spaghetti Aglio E Olio —pasta sautéed in garlic and olive oil. This was a side dish to baked fish and usually a green veggie like broccoli. Being an all-American meat-and-potatoes family, I can’t say any of us particularly loved this meal, but with dessert and presents to follow, we could stand once a year to have our taste buds under whelmed—except for maybe the garlic.

Mom was twisting spaghetti artfully around her fork, despite being a little tipsy from the wine at dinner. Rina, my sister-in-law, took breaks from stuffing her face due to prenatal indigestion.

The conversation was muffled, even quiet for us. It was a relief that everyone was giving “shop talk” a rest—discussing the family beauty shop business. Mom, Nick, Rina, and my sister Chris all worked there. I even worked there as a receptionist one summer vacation, till my prima donna brother with his hot temper let the F-word fly at me. Insulted, I quit on the spot. By now, this fact is hilarious, considering it was the ‘60s and every college kid, including me, found it to be the most versatile term of self-expression in the English language.

It was actually during a lull in the conversation—a rarity for the Mason family—that we were nearly blown out of our chairs by a loud explosion. It was coming from the direction of the oven.

Nick raced to the scene of the disaster, grabbing potholders en route. His version of chestnuts roasting on an open fire turned out to be chestnuts exploding in a closed oven. Smoke billowed and the inside the oven was beyond description.

“I think you’re supposed to pierce them with a knife first,” Mom said, between giggles. “It reduces the pressure.”

The rest of us had exploded into gales of laughter, leaving mirth on the walls like Oscar Madison’s linguine in The Odd Couple. It was hard to stop laughing long enough to go to Midnight Mass a couple hours later, especially lubed by the wine. I thought we’d have to have the bomb squad out. What a mess Nick had to clean up! Although he was hardly religious, he opted for Mass not mess, which he probably hoped Santa’s elves would clean up for him when they dropped by at midnight while we were at church.

Later, my sisters and I bunked out on blankets and mattresses on the floor and had a big family pajama party. Nick served Grasshoppers (he was incapable of anything simple), and I was looped by the time: the packages were torn open, we were sprinkled with holy water, and the instant replays of exploding chestnuts and flat cream puffs finally died down.

I am sure I dreamt my own unique Visions of Sugar Plums. I was on a sugar high on the sweetness of my wacky family, and how the greatest gift of all is the laughter we shared at our own human foibles.

Silent nights have their place, but so do memories with loud laughter.

Happy Holidays.

1 comment:

Pop Art Diva! said...

When you told me you had a story about grasshoppers and then an oven got involved I got a little worried! Thank goodness it was exploding chestnuts and NOT exploding grasshoppers! Then you mentioned the Grasshopper cocktails and I relaxed, lol.