For the longest time, I wanted Christmas my way, in my house.
Early on in my marriage, I imagined the fulfillment of this desire would require a death—namely, my mother-in-law’s. I certainly didn’t want that, and thankfully, I didn’t get that. Not for the longest time.
“Hurry, hurry! Coats and mittens. Zip, zip. Snap, snap!”
Out the door, down the steps, with maybe a brief pause on the street to try and spot Rudolph’s nose in the darkening sky. Then down the hill in the Land Cruiser the five of us would dash.
Two minutes later we stood inside the cozy kitchen of my in-laws, hanging up coats, slipping off shoes. The kids lined up beside the crystal punch bowl, frothy with pink clouds of raspberry sherbet, each of them gripping a sippy-cup as they waited for Grandma and her ladle.
This was the one night of the year the aroma of spaghetti sauce and meatballs did not infuse the house. This night there was only the smell of fish, several kinds.
With a grin, Tony accepted a cold Black Label from his father. And if I was still nursing a little one, I’d lift the jug of chilled water from the refrigerator and fill a glass.
Tony’s mother nudged him into the dining room and toward the last empty chair at the grown-up table. While at the kids’ table in the kitchen, I hoisted an infant into the high-chair that had held every child in my husband’s family, every grandchild, ever.
The Most Conflicted Relationship of All
My mother told me more than once that the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship represents the most conflicted relationship of all. At least that was her experience with my paternal grandmother.
My mom insisted Granny spoke disparagingly of her Irish lineage. Recently though, I found a letter Granny wrote Mom before she and Dad married. The words I read, in my grandmother’s slanting and elegant hand, were gracious and generous.
“All these weeks you have been in my heart and thoughts. Yet, I have not written you.
I have saved your sweet and thoughtful letter after you had received your diamond.
Will keep it for you, for someday when you are just another married woman, but a most important one…”
Perhaps the tension came later. Maybe during my parents’ first Christmas at Granny and Grandad’s house in Charleston.
Christmas Eve supper always began with squid soup.
I’d attempt to shush the kids as they made gagging sounds, their eyes rolling wildly.
“Just take one sip of broth. It tastes like chicken. I promise!”
Over at the grown-up table, Nana, my mother-in-law’s mother, recounted the story of prepping the squid. “It’s so slippery, the testicles of the squid!”
“Tentacles, Nana! Tentacles!” someone corrected.
“Si, si! The testicles!”
Minutes later, Grandma brought out another soup—this one, whiting. Under my breath, I repeated my plea to the kids: “Just one taste.”
“Why can’t I have a McDonald’s quarter-pounder meal, like Uncle Gary?”
I tried not to smile, although secretly, Gary’s rebellion pleased me greatly.
Next there was fried whiting, then bacala, a fish cured with so much salt, it took seven days in a constantly freshened water bath to reconstitute.
And smelts, battered and fried.
“The heads! They still have their heads. Where are the eyes? There are little holes for them, but no eyeballs!”
For years we didn’t attend Christmas Eve candlelight service.
Throughout the evening, I glanced at my watch over and over. My eyes filled with tears as the service time approached, then passed.
For me, the Christmas Eve candlelight service has always been the best part of Christmas; the reason for the season, as they say.
I longed to hear the reading of the Christmas Story, the singing of “Joy to the World” and “O, Come All Ye Faithful.” I hated to miss a group of kids acting out the Christmas story, maybe wearing bathrobes. Or perhaps they’d croon a flawed but dear rendition of, “Away in the Manger,” their young voices like spoons tinkling on wine glasses. Mostly pretty but with an occasional clank.
In later years, channeling my brother-in-law, Gary, I’d slip alone from my in-laws’ house and drive to a church, any church, to hear the Christmas Story, to sing carols, to lean close to the stranger beside me so they could light my small white candle during “Silent Night.”
Afterward, walking to my car in the crisp winter air, I’d listen closely, hoping to hear the whoosh of angels’ wings. They felt closer that night than any other.
Men over here–Women over there
While every dish was washed and dried, every single one, the men and older kids moved into the living room to play cards. 21. Pappy was always the dealer. Spare change was heaped high for placing bets. If a child won a dollar, they were rich. Rich!
In between hands, one of Tony’s sisters cruised the room with a tray of tiny glasses. The brandy—peach or apricot—twinkled like a topaz with the light of the Christmas tree.
In my ear, she whispered, “I poured you half a shot. There, the one on the left. Take it. It’s not enough to hurt your little guy.”
The sip made me feel warm for the first time all night.
I never really had a problem with my mother-in-law.
Well, there was that one time. She’d recommended, rather strongly, I not pick up our baby every time she cried. “Give her five minutes. She’ll probably stop. You’ll see.”
I clutched our firstborn to my chest. “For your information, my pediatrician disagrees. She says, until they are at least six-months old, infants should be comforted whenever they cry.”
One night, months later, desperately sleep-deprived, I didn’t slip out of bed the second our daughter cried in her crib. Instead, I watched the glow-in-the-dark numbers of my clock radio tick off the time: one minute, two, three, four…
Her sobs stopped.
There’s a clatter coming from the kitchen.
The sound of Grandma separating her largest Pyrex mixing bowl from a nest of many. The official Step One of making “frittis,” Italian fried dough.
If no one had yet walked Nana home to her house next door, she’d insist we make the “frittis” on a round, wooden board, with half a dozen eggs cracked into a substantial volcano of flour. A scoop of sugar, a pour of vanilla, some lemon zest maybe.
At the kitchen table, Nana’s heavy bosom pressed against my shoulder. “You take off-a your rings, Diana, all of them. And you knead, knead the dough. Squeeze, squeeze it.”
Behind me, Grandma placed a pan of vegetable oil on the stove to heat. One sister-in-law lined dinner plates with paper towels, to drain the “frittis.” Another sister shook powdered sugar into a medium-sized bowl.
Over at his diminutive bar in the dining room, my father-in-law poured Crown Royal and ginger ale into roly-poly, black polymer-webbed tumblers from the 70s—a detergent box gift-with-purchase, no doubt.
And then 13 years ago, my father-in-law—Pappy—passed away.
Quickly, cruelly, from cancer.
Never again did Grandma host Christmas Eve festivities. “I’ve done the cooking for years. Now it’s your all’s turn.”
After that, every year at Christmas, Grandma alternated houses, going to one of her daughters’ homes or joining Tony, me, and our kids at our house.
I never made squid soup, smelts, or bacala. Still, Grandma happily ate anything I served—shrimp butter, scallops wrapped in bacon, lobster bisque. She always assured me everything tasted delicious.
Sometimes she even went to Christmas Eve service with us.
In February of this year, Grandma passed away.
Quickly, gently. Not from cancer.
And now, how I wish I’d paid more attention when we made “frittis.” So I could make them at our house. So we could, at least sort of, have Grandma with us in a way. An angel.
My miserable wish finally came true. Christmas would now be my way in my house.
Every single one.