My boys during a Christmas about 5 years ago. They are my little heartbeats and heart attacks.
As I sit with my children, husband at my in-laws and listen to their family memories, I am drawn back to the memories of my own Christmases on the south side of Chicago. So many of the holidays were spent crammed in tiny kitchens trying to avoid the inevitable pinches, kisses, squeezes and over strong hugs of my Great Aunts, Uncles and Grandmothers and Papa. Ours was a typical family filled with too many people jammed into one room filled with too many cooks and too much caffeine and alcohol. As was typical of the Chicago post WWII houses the kitchen was a bit of an after thought and the “front” room aka parlor was for guests so since this was family all the ladies crammed into the kitchen to put their mark on the jello mold, gravy or roasts all while balancing a wine glasses, cigarettes and shouting at the kids. The men would huddle around the TV in the basement near the bar with their beers and cigarettes talking politics, sports and shooing the children upstairs. I remember feeling a bit like the metal ball in a pinball machine being tossed about and shuttled between games with the younger kids and tasks assigned by the ladies. The cacophonous noises filled the house full of a mixture of English, Polish, Bohemian shouting, laughter, gossip, arguments, screams of injured knees, burnt fingers from ovens and joyful laughter of love and discordant harmony of my family. We were a dysfunctional mixture of Celtic and Slavic cultures that found harmony in the constant noise and over physical nature of affection. A hug was not a hug unless it was filled soon by a wet smooch and a plea for air from a small child. My Great Aunt Albe was the best at this. Her love was over generous like her spirit. Her hugs were long and hard. Her flesh like her heart was warm and soft. She was the quickest cheek pinch on the South Side and her lap was a favored spot for all the new babies. She was constantly taking items from her purse (Mass or Saint cards were a favorite. I still carry one with me to this day) or china cabinets with the line, “ You like it ?!? Well take it! It is just collecting dust. Here! NO? Take it.” And you had to take it or the incessant urging of her generosity would never cease.
The food was plentiful since Uncle Johnny was a butcher and brought the ton of flesh and a duck. The air was filled with artery clogging meats, dressings, najifka (Czech) and creamed veggies. Sour creamed cucumbers onions and beets are still a favorite comfort food. A series of 3 tables were set up for the feasts, an adult table, adolescent and child’s table. No buffets for this family you sat down and passed everything after a prayer then the devouring began. After the bellies were filled, presents were opened and dishes were expertly cleaned and stowed away for next year, the games began. Card games were the choice of all the adults. 66 was the favorite for the smokers and after the kids were bathed and collapsed in beds, the party would continue until the wee hours of the morning. It was mayhem and filled with love and chaos.
So as I sit with calm Presbyterian manners where people sit and take turns speaking and visit about their family history which is now part of mine I long for the chaos a bit and miss the excesses of love, liquor and meats. Those wild wonderful exuberant women and men of my family are long dead and so is a bit of the magic that made me who I am but their fingerprints and voices echo in my soul.