December 22, 2005

Bits of myself

When I was a kid, my father and I used to take a trip into the city every Christmas Eve to "make the rounds." That meant visiting his family members, his aunts and uncles, all of whom lived in the same ethnic neighborhood on the north side of the city.

First we would stop at the tobacco shop to buy a cigar for his uncle. Ducking into that fragrant shop, after running through cold winds across an icy pavement, was the most wonderful experience. At first, I would just stand still inside the warmth, breathing in the rich fruity smells of all kinds of tobacco. Then I would wander to the glass jars, opening them to taste the aroma. My father would announce to the shop owner that he needed just one cigar, "the best cigar in the place."

The homes we visited that afternoon were apartments, sandwiched in with small businesses. Uncle Tailor and Aunt Soap Opera lived behind the tailor shop, both of them always listening for the bell that jingled when a customer opened the front door, always ready to go swishing through the racks of clothes. Uncle Tobacco and Aunt Talker lived on the top floor of a building, in apartment that slanted back away from the street as if it were pulling away from the traffic.

In every kitchen, food was cooking on the stove in preparation for Christmas. Aunt Soap Opera was always making meatballs with sauce. Aunt Talker was always preparing fish and washing artichokes. In each house, we’d sit at the kitchen table, watching the women work. Aunt Talker would give me a cup of black coffee and a shot of brandy. I would drink them both. Every home had a wall filled with black and white photos, framed and hanging crookedly. How strange it would be to stare into those photos and see bits of myself.

All the relatives we visited every Christmas Eve – and I kept going on the visits even when I was in college – are dead now. When Aunt Talker died, they put her rosary in the coffin. When Uncle Tobacco died, they put his pipe in his hands and his dice in his pocket. He had lived in that same slanting apartment for more than eighty years.

In many ways, I have resisted the heritage I get from my father's side of the family. In reaction to those dark, stuffy urban apartments, I have chosen to live in a house full of sunlight out in the country. I learned at an early age how to take a shot of liquor, downing it in one gulp, but then I gave up drinking over twenty years ago. I've never taken anyone to a field at the edge of town and put a bullet in his head.

But the older I get, I realize that I am more like my father's family than I ever realized. His family was filled with artists and musicians, and I still value those things, nurture the artistic and musical talents of my children. I'm tone deaf, but I think of rhythms when I write. I talk with my hands, like all the women in the family. I like making large quantities of food for relatives, basking in the smells of chopped basil, onions, and garlic. I have stayed stubbornly in the same area for my whole life, refusing to relocate for any reason. I can lose my temper over any little thing. And I still celebrate Christmas as a time to be with family.

13 comments:

peripateticpolarbear said...

You paint pictures, but of course you know that. And I'm really glad you haven't shot anybody. I would have been scared to meet you otherwise.

Phantom Scribbler said...

What PPB said. Though I must admit that I'm a little confused by the shooting people part.

ccw said...

This a beatiful post reflecting on times past. I think it sounds like a lovely way to spend Christmas Eve.

I think that everyone discovers that they are more like their family than they realize. It seems inevitable that pieces are present regardless of what you choose to reject.

Personally, I love your family and if you are in need of a tone deaf woman with many cats, I will gladly join.

Artichoke Heart said...

What a wonderful post. I loved getting to take a glimpse inside those little urban shops and apartments. Thank you.

Suzanne said...

What a fascinating family. I think you deserve some sort of award for the most creative yet appropriate use of pseudonyms!

Yankee T said...

AAAAAAAH, Jo(e), this is a great piece.

Earlygrrrl said...

I have similar influences running through me, Jo(e), some of which I've rejected (many of the same you've rejected) and some which I've embraced.

One result of growing up in such an environment that's OK - fierce protection of loved ones, of The Clan. Loyalty is paramount, and I would do anything to protect a member of my family, which doesn't entirely consist of blood relatives. While I've never sat in my front yard in my bathrobe with a shotgun waiting for people who want to do harm to my family (true story – I think I was 17 when I saw the Crazy Bastard out there- the first Official Bastard I was to love), I'm not entirely above contemplating such an extreme reaction when it comes to protecting loved ones. It's in my blood. I've just chosen healthier manifestations, as it appears you have. My husband refers to me as Mafia Earlygrrrl in Mafia Mode when I suspect someone is fucking with a loved one.

But the cigars, the red sauce replete with garlic (sugo, in my house), the ubiquitous rosaries (definitely rejected), and the shots of liquor at any age (Sambuca, of course)- yes, it rings very true. Thanks for taking me way back…

halloweenlover said...

Great post, Jo(e). The memories are good to hold onto, even if not all of them are happy.

Merry Christmas! I hope the memories you are making for your children every year are only happy loving ones!

Random Kath said...

Jo(e), your post brought back so many memories of Christmas at my Granparents' house . . . my Grandpa smoked a pipe, too. I miss him so much still - 18 years later. We are always carry the traits of the people in our families, not matter how much we try to leave them behind.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday! Thank you for sharing with us . . .

Running2Ks said...

Those traditions stick with you. I remember the "Italian kitchen"--cooking and having the parties in the basement. Many pipes, cigars, and drinks there.

Happy Holidays to you!

Seeking Solace said...

Tradition is a wonderful thing. Especially when you can pass it down. I have wonderful memories of Christmas as a child.

Have a Merry Christmas!!

Friday Mom said...

Beautiful post, Jo(e). I've struggled to know what parts of my family and tradition to hold on to. The older I get, the better able I am to find what I can to embrace. I'm certainly glad you haven't killed anyone, but it seems you've done a marvelous job identifying with beautiful things in your family's past. Those things you name at the end are what make this blog like a warm, cozy home to visit on a cold, grey day.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I knew there was a reason I was surprised to see the pictures of your house with all the light! I always pictured your house as dim and crowded before I saw the pictures, and now I know why. It has the social atmosphere of an small ethnic apartment on the north side of Snowstorm City.

I've never taken anyone to a field at the edge of town and put a bullet in his head.

This isn't something people should have to say. It should be in a category with statements like "I have never grown an extra head" and "I never recreationally amputate healthy limbs." It should just go without saying.

I'm now a little scared of you.