Relatives

Happy Holidays 2: New Years Day

 

New Years Day (1950s) 

New Years Day was spent at Aunt Kay and Uncle Jimmy’s house.

This time the lead course was home- made Lasagna, instead of Ravioli, because this time Grandma did not participate.

Aunt Rose, who had apparently won grandma every single year in the Christmas lottery said that grandma was tired, could not possibly cook and needed a break from the stress of Christmas; meaning that Kay then slaved alone in the kitchen.

Uncle Jimmy started off the festivities by making Martinis. Only he could make them, because according to him only he could make them correctly and truthfully only he could drink them because everyone else eventually had to drive home. So Jim got sloshed by himself, which only led to ever escalating personal pontifications as the day wore on. Since he used onions instead of olives it also led to the annual debate about weather a Martini with onions could really be called a Martini. My mother said it should be called a Gibson but Uncle Jim said that was too confusing; leaving the issue to remain on the table year after year, never being really laid to rest; except to finally compromise by affirming that the drink was in fact a Martini with onions.

Once again, after the lasagna, chicken and salad were served; then topped off by a dessert scenario similar to the one at Christmas: soggy half-rotted fruit, nuts, cookies and candy in the same genre as those at Rose’s house. In fact, some of it might have been recycled from Rose’s house. However this time at least, we did not sing Happy Birthday to the Gregorian calendar.

We did, in fact sing, but it took me a very long time to figure out that Auld Lang Syne was not some aging Norseman that everyone was trying to forget.

It was also here that instead of debating the merits of pricking the meat, the customary lengthy annual debate would shift to the subject of sauce versus gravy. Or if not that it would be the concept of spaghetti versus macaroni. There was a faction in the family that insisted on calling spaghetti sauce, “gravy.” One person would say: “Pass the sauce.” Then another person would immediately say: “It’s not sauce. It’s gravy.” God forbid then if anyone doubly compounded the issue by more or less innocently asking someone to “Pass the spaghetti sauce.”

That statement usually called for an attack on the jugular vein.

  • Every year we tell him its macaroni and its gravy. And every year he asks for spaghetti with sauce.

Then all hell would break loose.

The debate raged on and on but no one ever changed their minds because no one ever took the time to research the technical definitions between sauce and gravy. At the same time even remotely trying to define macaroni as being any dried pasta product over the diameter of 3 mm and shorter than 1.5 inches, would have been asking too much in the way of a compromise. Thank god indeed that in their telescoped myopic thinking they had also failed to realize that there are over 150 names for various kinds of pastas, or we never would have gotten to the dessert.

More likely than not, these arguments were never destined to be resolved in the first place, because if they had been, then no one would have had anything to say to each other. It would have been just seven terminally bored adults sitting around the table again, silently passing and re-passing the “sauce” around in a “gravy” boat to pour on the “pasta” while the master of the house drank Martinis with onions.

The only time the conversation would shift gears would be when Uncle Tony and Aunt Francis might occasionally stop in for a brief visit. Uncle Tony’s first wife had died prematurely, which left him alone with two small children. Since he had a full time job and could not handle the domestic side of life by himself, he immediately went back to Italy where he found the first woman who would take on both himself as well as his children.

The process was about one step shy of having ordered her by mail, and then sent over by Fed Ex in a packing crate.

But his new bride, Francis, who was barely out of her late teens at the time, not only embraced the prospect of becoming an instant mother, but also embraced the chance to move to America and become an instant United States citizen. It turned out that Uncle Tony’s intuition about this woman was correct because she not only became a wonderfully devoted wife and companion but also raised Tony’s children as if they were her own. She was a sweet woman with a big heart and a pleasant, happy, optimistic disposition. For some reason, she either did not or could not have children of her own.

Since Tony and Francis had other family obligations on this holiday, they usually came after dinner and always left before dessert. The good old holiday drive-by being a mixed blessing. If you don’t show up, they castigate you, and when you do come over, but then leave, they gossip. So predictably, as soon as the front door closed behind them, the same pathetically tedious conversation would begin, as the rest of the clan would then project their own emotions.

  • Poor Aunt Francis. Isn’t it a shame that she doesn’t have any children of her own?
  • Yes, isn’t it a shame she will never know the joys and blessings that having and raising your own children can bring.

As though Aunt Francis might be living a life devoid of any satisfaction or fulfillment by raising not real, but surrogate step children or as though these pin-headed experts on other people’s psyches were embarked on the road of raising their own perfect and life fulfilling natural children themselves.

The only scenario that topped this one was when my office manger would bring her daughter to the in-laws on whatever holiday they were obligated to go. Her mother-in-law would immediately hand her the camera asking that she take a picture of the “family,” as if she herself was nothing better than a breeding pod for her husband’s side of the gene pool. This resulted in the in-law family archives only containing annual pictures of a poor little motherless child.

Beside a slowly emerging insight into my relatives narrow minded thought processes, I was also slowly but surely beginning to appreciate the fact that Italian desserts are a culturally anticlimactic afterthought to the point I am now confident that it is only in the category of the dessert in which Italians can out-Deli the Jews. The real gluttony goes with the main meal and as such, most Italians never actually make dessert or pay it much mind. On the off chance that someone had brought Canolies for example, the shells were usually a day old and spongy-soft instead of being crunchy-crisp, while the filling tasted like old unused unwrapped butter after it has picked up every odor in the refrigerator. Or even if there was something more conventional such as Italian cookies, they were usually store bought, tasteless, made out of lard and stale in a way suggesting they were Neolithic. If they were sufficiently old, they could actually crumble to dust when touched making me positively sure they are probably responsible for causing at least one clogged artery in some member of the family.

There must be a large government surplus warehouse where these cookies are stockpiled; and probably a subsidiary branch of the U.S. Department of Surplus Fruitcakes. To this day I wish people would not send any of these culinary horrors to my office on the holidays so I do not have to re-re-gift them or suffer the guilt that holiday gift recycling brings. Or worse, forget that you are really giving the same present back to the person who gave it to you last year.

But at least at Cousin Jimmy’s house there were some boy’s toys and some boy things to do, not to mention twelve hours of College Football Bowl games on T.V. to distract the men. Also at this locale, for unknown reasons, even Rosemary seemed to fare a little better, occasionally spoke a few words but still pouted over dinner and never ate very much.

In fact, we all fared a little better as long as Uncle Jimmy happened to be in a good Martini mood. It was also a very good day indeed if we children were not required to perform any sort of music recitals in front of half drunk, tone deaf pseudo-aficionado relatives. It didn’t matter anyway because after Little Jimmy’s accomplished rousing virtuoso rendition of the “Clarinet Polka,” followed by my equally accomplished Cousin Laura’s annual refusal to play the flute; that was basically “all she wrote.” Nobody else’s talent was even close to being on par with Little Jimmy’s, while Uncle Jimmy’s predictably bi-polar sour mood after badgering Laura to play when she would not, made all three of these acts equally hard to follow.

 

 Auld Lang Syne          gibson

Should old acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot

And days of Auld Lang Syne

Photo: Gibson cocktail  © manolobig.com

 

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays 

I really cannot blame my mother too much for her disdain of mandatory family gatherings. The same people who scorned and ridiculed her when she first met them now wished to embrace her, three times a year, with hypocritical open arms and unctuous salutations. For over fifteen years we were expected to rotate three major holidays to be hosted at one of three houses. Christmas was at Aunt Rose’s, New Years was at Aunt Kay’s, and Easter was at our house. Thanksgiving did not count for some reason other than the fact that four holidays cannot be evenly divided by three families, leaving me on that day each year to profusely thank Uncle Mike for having moved to California.

How these holidays were selected and how the lottery fell to determine whose house and on which of the days I will never know, but it was cast in stone that this schedule was immutable.

The menus and routines were also immutable. 

1. Christmas (1950s)

On Christmas my grandmother made cheese ravioli. They were gigantic, exquisitely tasteful and had individually varied kaleidoscopic shapes. I still have the original recipe and make them on a rare occasion; but I dare you to try it for yourself to understand why we only had them once a year. Making ravioli falls into the general category of; “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Without fail Chicken and salad always followed this first course.

Since my preference would have been stay at home all day playing with my Christmas presents, the post-meal, pre-desert adult bull-shitting break seemed interminable. By that time it was usually dark outside and I was bored beyond belief.

Finally, associated with a great fanfare entrance from the kitchen, and all the dining room lights turned off, Aunt Rose would march in with a snow white cake covered in white frosting, sprinkled with stale coconut slivers, a single white candle lit on top, and would then proceed to lead the family in a hearty rendition of singing happy birthday to ‘Baby Jesus.’ It was nauseating and insipidly stupid. Although to be absent from this ceremony was to commit family blasphemy, the whole scene presented a great conundrum, as to my knowledge one does not get the cake, the song, or a single candle on ones actual birth date. Nor could I reconcile the fact that by my count this anniversary really called for a much bigger cake to accommodate the necessary candles or that helping to light and then blow out 1959 of them would have finally made it worth spending the entire day there.

To make matters worse, I happen to hate coconut, would try to pick each flake off the frosting in a process that created a gooey mess which then prompted a few unsolicited but predictable annual comments from Aunt Rose.

  • What’s the matter? You don’t like coconut cake? Who doesn’t like coconut cake? What kind of a kid doesn’t like coconut cake? Sal, what’s wrong with Alan that he doesn’t like coconut cake?

The next step in logic, which might be to serve a chocolate one too was obviously beyond anyone’s imaginative reach. Either that or it would undoubtedly conjure up some crude bigoted comment blaspheming Jesus by an implication he might have actually been a black man.

  • Chocolate huh? Hey Rose. So you think maybe God was a mouli? Ha, ha.

The only other possibility for desert then was a bowl of fruit  with over ripened brown bananas, pulpy apples, last years chestnuts and soggy grapes or some chocolates with unpredictable and sometimes inedible interiors. Because the house rule was that you were obligated to eat the candy you picked or you could not have another one, we kids usually palmed the ones with the nasty surprises inside and tossed them outside in the next-door neighbor’s yard.

One of the most poignant things I remember about Rose’s house was the full size oil portrait of herself over the fireplace mantle, wearing a crimson red dress.  But I only fixated on the large black facial mole because the hair growing out of the mole had been omitted by artistic flattering license. This made the painting a hypocritical showcase centerpiece and a subtle declarative monument to who really wore the pants in the family. Actually because of her stump legs that failed to taper to ankles, she would have looked much better in pants.

True to form, she had a litany of “house rules” creating a paranoia in which I truly believed that the eyes on that painting could see what anyone; anywhere in the house was doing. The very fact of being in her house gave me the creepy feeling that I was in an oversized birdcage replete with hidden surveillance cameras.

Uncle Ed, who was married to Rose, was a very humorous, congenial, easy going laid back person. He was a pleasure to be around, was naturally funny and had a knack for making everyone laugh; and an odd polar opposite to his wife.

He once sent my mother a homemade birthday card with a cameo headshot of himself on the inside panel, and crayoned angelic starbursts radiating out around his beaming face. It simply said: ‘Happy Birthday: From Me.’

Eddy loved fresh water fishing, deer hunting with bow and arrow, and was an avid coin collector in the days when rarities still existed in pocket change.

The long standing family joke about him never having actually bagged a deer was quieted the day he did a surprise drive-by on the way home from upstate and after plopping the carcass onto our front lawn tried to hack some venison off the butt end of buck he had shot. My mother, who secretly abhorred the thought of roasted venison, politely declined the offer by lying about the fact that there was not enough room in the freezer. But then again she also said the same thing when I tried to put my fishing bait in there; always harping tirelessly about its smell until it was finally used up. Freezer excuses and freezer rules.

Since Eddy worked for the New York State Throughway Department, he could unpredictably get called out on Christmas Day to plow snow someplace in upstate New York with exotic sounding names like Saugerties Although everyone bemoaned this fact and pitied “poor Uncle Eddy who had his Christmas ruined”, for some equally strange reason Uncle Eddy himself never seemed to be too upset at having to leave, even hinting at a bit of cheer instead as he bounded out the front door saying: “Merry Christmas everybody.”

Later in life when I had to carry a beeper on holidays, I too would come to appreciate the saving grace of being paged out from onerous obligatory social functions which made having to work, by relative values, seem to be infinitely better than mandatory fun with insipidly boring relatives or the tedious ennui of a cocktail party.

My cousin Jimmy and I preferred our own fantasy about Uncle Eddy, that after a few hours of plowing snow off the Thruway, he was  hanging out with his road crew; maybe playing cards or possibly pulling a break at some road-side diner. He would probably be happy to have escaped for the holiday and was perhaps even enjoying a nice piece of chocolate fudge cake for an unusually welcome change on Christmas Day.

                    Birthday cake

Happy birthday, baby Jesus, Happy birthday, to you.