Holidays evoke memories of childhood celebrations, especially December festivities. For years my family gathered on Christmas day at my aunt and uncle’s Manhattan home…
As I entered Aunt Nettie and Uncle Harry’s apartment my eyes focused on the tree. Red, blue, green and white lights dazzled. Nestled in an alcove alongside the fireplace, the tree rose to the ceiling and extended into the living room. Bulging holiday stockings hung on the mantle. A pile of presents scattered around the fireplace awaited eager hands anxious to unravel gold bows and tear open impeccably wrapped boxes. Most of the gifts were for me, my sister Janice, and Pam, the daughter of Aunt Nettie’s best friend – three lucky recipients of Aunt Nettie and Uncle Harry’s generosity.
The annual Christmas Day gathering was not without stress, and for my immediate family it came in the guise of travel trauma. We lived on Long Island, normally an hour’s drive from Manhattan. Nothing was normal about the Christmas Day journey. City roads can be nerve-racking any time, but especially during holidays. Maneuvering thoroughfares like the Long Island Expressway and New York City streets requires patience and time. My parents did not have either on Christmas. The long, tedious drive strained the patience of all four passengers – the driver, usually Dad, Mom, me, and my sister.
My parents shouted at each other. “You missed the exit!”…”We should have left earlier.”…”Damn, I think I left the Jell-O in the refrigerator.”…”Watch out! You almost hit that car.”…”Watch it! That car almost hit you.”
Janice and I taunted one another. “She’s touching me.”…”She hit me.”…”Shut up!”…”She’s on my side.”…”She went over the line.”…”Are we almost there? I have to pee.” My parents hollered at us. “Shshshsh.”…”Stop yelling at each other.”…”Be quiet, please.”…”I don’t care who is on whose side of the seat. There’s plenty of room for both of you.”…”If you don’t stop we’ll turn around and go home.” We never turned around and always made it to Manhattan. It is remarkable my parents did not divorce as a result of the stressful hours lost in traffic.
We finally arrived at my aunt and uncle’s building, irritable, hungry, and a bit bedraggled. Mom, me and my sister unloaded shopping bags full of presents, proceeded into the building and on to the apartment. Dad drove slowly around the block, frazzled and cursing, in search of a parking space. I am not sure how he did it, but he always managed to make it to the apartment in time for dinner.
The three girls who livened up the apartment could not wait for the day’s highlight – distributing gifts. We picked up one package at a time, found the nametag attached, read the name aloud and ceremoniously handed the gift to the lucky recipient. I amassed a stack of colorfully wrapped packages, but was not allowed to open any until all were assigned.
Three giggling girls ran through the apartment showing off their latest possessions and playing with new toys. Aunt Nettie held her breath, our mothers scolded us and we temporarily halted our antics. Until we started up again.
I doubt gifts were the highpoint of the adults’ day. I am sure dinner was the best part of their Christmas.
The rectangular dining table was handsomely appointed with an assortment of tableware and linens, matching tablecloths and napkins as well as unique pieces, collected during Aunt Nettie’s world travels. An assortment of bowls laden with meats, vegetables, and casseroles extended along the center of the table. I remember the sweets. Nettie’s plum pudding was her specialty, a distinctive holiday dessert she proudly served every year. I preferred apple and cherry pies and chocolate cake. Mom’s favorite was pecan pie, and Dad devoured seven-layer cake.
By evening everyone was tired, cranky, and ready to go home. Yet another tense, traffic-clogged drive loomed ahead.
Each year throughout the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s my family spent Christmas at Aunt Nettie and Uncle Harry’s home. The tradition ended when they retired to the Sunshine State.
2020 has been a rough year for everyone. Here’s hoping 2021 is happier, healthier, and saner for all.