This is the ninth in a series of Christmas reflections.
Them Thar Wheels,
Going Round and Round
Having completed Christmas Breakfast, and having determined that the coffee cake lamp was out, we looked forward to the day’s prospects. Reading was standard fare, no matter what the venue. If we were going out to Ontario, I brought my book; if Mama was still at church, and Pa was in the kitchen, reading was inevitable; if we were asked to come to the dinner table, the one time of the year when we ate in the house, but outside of the kitchen, there was bound to be some logistical delays, and reading helped stave off hunger pangs.
Christmas Day saw us kids piling into the car with Pa, to travel out toward San Bernardino to visit Uncle Pat and Aunt Emily and our cousins. There were early years when we included a stop to see Uncle Joe and Grandma O’Neill, who shared an apartment for a time, and there were years when we included a stop at Uncle Jack and Aunt Ginny’s. It was always fun at Uncle Pat’s, because they really enjoyed the season, and the time was spent sharing stories and showing off new possessions.
I used to be amazed at Uncle Pat’s affinity for attending Christmas mass. He would go to the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, another mass early in the morning, and then go back for the high mass in the late morning. I know it sounds sacrilegious, but Christmas mass was not an easy experience for me, so why someone would go for a double play, or even a strike out, was beyond me. But the time he spent at church did not decrease Uncle Pat’s ability to make merry; quite the contrary as I wonder now if all that solemnity did not create the need for Holiday enthusiasm.
This was our closest association with our cousins from Pa’s side of the family, and we could not have been provided with a more benign setting. Christmas validated all agendas, and continues to do so.
One year, around 1957, I got my first bike, and managed to live out one of any kid’s most treasured scenarios. I was trying to get that darned bike to stay upright, and Pa was just as determined. He’d start me off with a good run and shove, and I would sail triumphantly along for about thirty feet, where I would gradually slow down, and then go down.
It did not diminish Pa’s enthusiasm one iota. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” he’d say, as I wondered what happened to my cookie. Or maybe it would be, “That’s the way the mop flops. You got to get back up on that seat and keep pedaling. Remember to keep them thar wheels going round and round.” I was always amazed at the transformation of Pa, when he got around the kids on those occasions when he was transported back into his own austere upbringing.
The dad who came home from work, tired and browbeaten, uninterested in intrusive kids, disappeared on these festive occasions, and was replaced by this beaming, enthusiastic other man. His exuberance was infectious, and it emerged in the oddest places, like the kitchen. I spent a lot of time with a potato peeler, or paring knife, helping dice onions, celery, bell peppers, carrots, or potatoes, whatever was going into the evening’s meal.
On Christmas Day, I was certain to spend an hour or so involved in the preparation of the dinner. Pa was always in a good frame of mind, which pretty much describes him in a cooking mode. All of those years he painted a picture of owning his own restaurant, with each of us involved in whatever capacity best worked. I distinctly remember thinking that I would much rather wash dishes for strangers than for my own family. It just sounded so exotic. I only mention it, because it must have been hard to spend forty hours or more a week, doing something that was not your first passion. I enjoy envisioning what he may have been like, if he would have been able to oversee his own restaurant kitchen.
Aside from visiting, reading and cooking, Christmas Day was all about sharing and comparing. We were closely intertwined as siblings, so JT’s new game was as enticing to me, as it was to her. Brian’s new baseball bat was as welcome to me as it was to him, even if there was a slight service charge, to be extracted along the baseball path of life.
A thousand-piece puzzle was as much mine, as it was the person who owned it, if it were spread out on the dining room table. Everyone worked on it, and just hoped that a rug rat wouldn’t end up consuming the hapless piece that fell to the floor. I once munched a puzzle piece belonging to Brian, when I was around two years old. Payback was meticulously carried out, my penance painstakingly performed until such time as the scale was deemed balanced. Nothing like having to account for your actions as a toddler.
Luckily, I had gotten over eating his possessions by the time he got his Camaro. Chrome valve covers are so hard on the digestion.