Christmas at Grandpa and Grandma Z’s was very different from at Grandma C’s. There were fewer children, louder talking, lots of food, and no presents exchanged. The fact that Mom’s family was catholic and Dad’s came from a mix of Evangelical Christian (Grandpa) and Quaker (Grandma) was only the beginning.
Mom only had two brothers and one sister. Uncle Kenny and his wife, Aunt Pat looked like movie stars ’cause they were about as tall as the ceiling and had jet black hair, and clothes that hung on them like they were born to wear beautiful clothes. They lived far away; way the heck over in New England. I never even left the state, except to go to Chicago to visit Mom’s cousin Irene and her kids; that was just around Lake Michigan, so hardly counted as leaving the state. New England was way far away, and people there talked funny, leaving out the last letter lots of times. Mom taught us to speak clearly, ’cause her parents were from the Old Country and Mom learned to talk with an accent. She said ‘tousands’ instead of ‘thousands’ when she was growing up, and her teacher wouldn’t let her be in debate on account of her bad diction. That was back before I was around. Mom talked clear as clear can be, as long as I knew her. And when she was angry or irritated, she talked even more distinct. Mom was more like Grandma C in that way, ’cause she hardly ever yelled, she just talked in a way that insisted people listened.
Uncle Gene and Aunt Marion had two boys, Larry and Gary. Larry was the same age as Bonita and Gary was the same as Deanna. No best-friend-cousin for me, that’s for sure. Uncle Gene lived right next door to Grandpa, and I suppose he might have been handsome like Uncle Kenny, but his face always pulled up in a scowl, like he was concentrating hard on something deep inside, that nobody else knew about, and he had to solve that problem come hell or high water. That’s what happened to me every time I had a fever: lots of math problems went racing around in my head, and I knew I would never get better until I got all those problems solved. That’s a terrible feeling, and I felt bad if that’s the way Uncle Gene’s head was all the time. Still, I stayed clear of him.
Grandpa’s brothers and sisters came over for Christmas. I could never keep straight which were his real brothers and sisters, and which came along with marriages. They were all from the Old Country. They could speak English a mile a minute, but they could think even faster. Sometimes, they got so excited about what they said, that they started to stutter. Most of the time, everybody talked at the same time and fast and furious.
Buscia was Grandpa’s Mom. Buscia means grandma in Old Country. She spoke English some, but she pretended she couldn’t. Dad mostly stayed quiet. For one thing, he was a slow talker, like me, and he had a hard time getting a word in edgewise. For another thing, Buscia pretended she had no clue what he was saying, which sorta aggravated Dad ’cause he suspected she knew more than she let on. Even though Dad liked jokes, he hated being played for a fool.
At Grandpa’s all the women and girls helped out with setting table, getting the food on the table, and cleaning up. We had glompkies, sauerkraut, perogies, ham, chicken, pineapple rolls, poppy-seed rolls, pickles (dill and sweet), olives (green and black), dinner rolls, mashed potatoes, klatchies, pies, cakes, candies, and any other thing you could possible think up. I never learned how to spell those foods, ’cause Old Country words never got into my spelling books. Grandma said it’s an insult to your guests if they go away hungry. Grandma never insulted a guest, I can swear to that. I felt like I could hold off eating for a week, after one of Grandma’s Christmas meals.
Aunt Annie was a teenager. She just sat around twirling her pony-tail, or gabbing and giggling with Joey, who was Pauline and Basil’s daughter. They were cousins somehow, but Basil and Pauline were as old as Grandma and Grandpa, so they were not regular cousins. Annie and Joey liked to talk about Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Annie said Grandma made her keep both her hands on the wheel when she was driving, which was not what the teacher told her was the correct way. Both those girls complained about their moms being old fashioned and square. Pauline and Grandma were round, not square. I never blurted that out, ’cause it was hard to get a word in edgewise with those two girls; not because they talked fast like the adults, but because they talked with faces almost touching and their shoulders hunched toward each other, like they were hatching up a secret plan.
All the women and girls put the food away and did dishes, which took forever and a day. Everybody talked up a blue-streak in the kitchen, while the men watched the fights or football on TV. I had way more fun in the kitchen, listening to those women gossip and laugh and talk about the old times. Sometimes they sang songs or recited poems. That’s where I found out that Grandma had a wicked stepmother, ’cause her Mom died when she was younger than me. And she wet the bed and got a mean song sang to her by other kids. I tried to think what Grandma looked like when she was eight years old or younger, but it was no use; I had her old face stuck in my head. I tried to think of her feeling bad about herself, and that was even harder. My grandma was a laugher and a squeezer.
Families can be so different, and still love a little girl to bits. Most of Mom’s aunts and uncles, and my Grandma and Grandpa are gone, so is my cousin Larry. None of the next generation get together with my family at Christmas, except of course my brothers and sisters, which come to think of it, is most of us. It’s interesting how the two family traditions blended together to create a new one. I wonder where it will go from here.