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.