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Christmas With Mary

December 22, 2013

The celebration of Christmas in my life is divided into two distinct periods. The first is the Christmas of my childhood with my mother, father, and sister. These were the Christmases of leaving Santa Claus milk and cookies by the lolly pole and quarrels over decorating the tree and the stockings hung by the fake fireplace my father had built and the wild pleasure of new toys. These Christmases, now preserved in fading photos, ended when my sister and I became preoccupied teens with interests beyond our own home.

Christmas in the rumpus room

our rumpus room Christmas

The second is the Christmas at Mary’s house. Mary, my wonderful mother-in-law, the matriarch of the family and the impresario of the all-day Christmas dinner. These were the Christmases of all the Uncles stopping by after church for a glass of Jezynowka Blackberry Flavored Brandy or a shot of something stronger, my mom and dad arriving later to join in celebration with the loving and boisterous family I had married into. The Christmases of my niece Emma, the little princess and star of the show in her festive velvet Laura Ashley dress opening presents on the living room floor and mugging for the ever-present camera, a few years later joined by her brother Luke, always with a frisky Schnauzer — first Teddy and later Rocky — scurrying around amidst the mountains of wrapping paper. The Christmases of Uncle Sammy sitting at the end of the table telling his colorful stories that prompted the birth of the “paratrooper alert” by Paula to signal the need to edit a bit for her children’s sake.

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary's

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary’s

These are the Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much and remember so well, sitting around that oval table in the dining room surrounded by family photos and Mary’s Hummel collection, hearing the bustle of cooking coming from the small kitchen with Mary emphatically directing the operation. And the food — oh, the food! First the antipasto, the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive steaming platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

Some of us would retreat to the breezeway between courses to digest and watch a few segments of A Christmas Story. Uncle Sammy would plop himself into the well-cushioned arm-chair and soon nod off as Emma, Luke, and I laughed at Ralphy’s dilemmas even though we’d seen them countless times before. We’d be called back to the table as the ham and sweet potato and vegetables and salad made their appearance, belts loosened to accommodate the abundance. The glorious day of stuffing ourselves came to a conclusion with coffee, pignoli cookies, and Mary’s homemade cheesecake. It would take until New Years to fully recover.

Over the years, these Christmases suffered losses, first my father, then my mom, and then Uncle Sammy, but the tradition carried on. The past few years, because of Mary’s failing health, the job of preparation and cooking had to be taken over by my father-in-law Tony and Bernadette and Paula, but they performed admirably, and Mary sat there in her customary spot, agreeing with a smile that they had indeed done a good job on the lasagna, although never quite as good as hers. Last year we moved Christmas to Paula’s house for the sake of logistics, but Mary still enjoyed the evening surrounded by good food and loving family.

2010, our last Christmas with Mary.

2012, our last Christmas with Mary.

This will be the first Christmas without Mary. We will convene again at Paula’s, and I’m sure the stories of our Christmases past will be told with much laughter as well as a few tears. It will not be the same, though, Mary’s familiar spot now empty, her smiling approval of the stuffed mushrooms and lasagna missing. But the gift of all of Mary’s Christmases shall remain with us, kept alive in memory and story alike, and each year as the family gathers once again, Mary’s presence will be felt, and her indomitable spirit will live on as we celebrate Christmas together.

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