Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pennsylvania Christmas Memories

Several years ago, I wrote a short blurb for my company’s internal organ detailing some favorite holiday memories. After years of seeing my stories everyday in the newspaper and then changing occupations, it was again gratifying to see my by line in print again. The collateral benefit was capturing in print some family holiday lore that probably would have been long forgotten.

My sister-in-law apparently enjoyed the short story enough to request that I write down more holiday memories. I wondered if I hadn’t already used my favorites, so I gave it some thought and decided that now was a good time to write about holidays growing up before I forget them, just as how I had almost forgotten writing that original holiday blurb.

Nearly everyone lays claim to unique holiday stories and situations and so do I. In the years when I was old enough to still believe Santa Clause existed [spoiler alert] my brothers and sister had an annual reminder that caused us to doubt for maybe a few years after we normally shouldn’t have that the jolly old elf was real.

Christmas Eve was always spent at my Aunt Dorothy’s home in downtown Reading, Pennsylvania. The extended family (mother’s side) all convened for a buffet dinner followed by a wonderful party until relatives either had to take the younger cousins home to bed or, as everyone got older, pack off the local Polish church for Midnight Mass. My grandmother’s side was predominantly Polish and the parts of the Mass, then in Latin, were supplemented with Polish. As a kid without language skills other than English, I was left out.

The Mass was jammed with standing worshipers. There was little room left for the Knights of Columbus, in full regalia, with plumes and swords, to line the main aisle of the entrance and egress of the priest. I remember my older brother (by three years) leaning over and whispering to me, “This is why they call it ‘Mass’.” It was warm and stuffy. The Knights tried in vain to make an aisle and I vaguely remember wondering why people wouldn’t honor a simple request made by men with swords, when a small boy remarked loudly to his mother, “I don’t feel good.”

An aisle you could drive a truck through opened up and the Knights took their positions and for a few tense moments everyone wondered if we were going to experience an unpleasant eruption.

But getting back to that marvelous evening at Aunt Dorothy’s, I remember things that seemed to happen every year as if someone had set some holiday clock. Aunt Dorothy had legendary deviled eggs and I was always on the lookout for my mother as I snatched too many of these delights from their scooped-out ceramic plates. There was also the Pennsylvania Dutch potatoes salad that the entire city bought from the same stand at the Farmer’s market or all over town: Sailer’s. One year, about two decades ago, Sailer’s finally revealed their secret recipe and some of the steps were so convoluted that only the slightly insane or masochistic would bother duplicating it—one of life’s great mysteries, finally solved.

Aunt Dorothy’s home was a three-story Pullman style row home with a small gift shop and my Uncle Leon’s picture framing studio on the ground floor. Uncle Leon was an accomplished painter whose renown in art circles would grow after he had passed away. His unique style of painting figures without distinct facial features set him apart from other local artists.

I remember the long narrow halls, the high ceilings, the beautiful never-ending stair banisters going up to the mysterious third floor from the party, which occupied the second floor. In the front room that opened onto the cityscape on Penn Avenue, there was an upright piano, the Christmas tree and a classic fireplace. The middle room was a large dining room, home of the deviled eggs, and there in the back, was the kitchen. The men all gathered in the kitchen where Uncle Leon held court.

For a young, growing lad, Aunt Dorothy’s kitchen was the final frontier of adolescence. The rite of passage dictated that you were only grown up if you were allowed in the kitchen with the men drinking beer from small tumblers and listening to their stories and this year’s new jokes.

At some point, the cousins were all herded into the front room because Uncle Carl, cigar in mouth, started playing Christmas Carols. He was quite accomplished and, I believe I was told, he had performed with the Reading Philharmonic, so everything he played was amazing. As a child you loved hearing the carols and then remembered that his last number would be Jingle Bells and that meant the arrival of Santa. The fireplace was right there but probably way too inconvenient to come down with all those people there so he opted for walking down the hall from the kitchen, rattling sleigh bells to announce his arrival.

Uncle Carl would stop playing and Santa would set down his large sack next to the piano bench and one by one we would be called up for his annual inquisition before as a requisite for receiving our present.

“And were you a good boy this year?” he intoned with the formal diction of a circuit judge. Mentally, your entire year passed in front of your eyes and you gulped deeply, now remembering all those transgressions, many which had been witnessed by one or more of the cousins in the room awaiting their turn. “Yes,” you found yourself lying out loud while you were thinking that he can’t possibly have known about the time you played in the out-of-bounds chicken coops, the ones with the hornets’ nests. Or the times you cut five minutes off your hour wait before jumping into the swimming pool after a big lunch.

My memory of what Santa looked like is foggy. I heard years later that whichever imposing fiancĂ© of my older generation cousins was a newbie that year, was entrusted with the annual conceit. I am sure as  a Santa Claus he was quite ordinary to an adult but I always remember a combination of Norman Rockwell, Currier and Ives wearing Coca-Cola red and a Hallmark, rosy-cheeks face. All adults were 6-8 and 280 lbs. in those years.

The present he gave you was one selected from the balance of the gifts you would receive the next day at Pop-Pop’s farm in the country.

Christmas that officially opened at Aunt Dorothy’s officially closed the following day at my grandfather’s farm in Maiden Creek. Every year, Christmas Day was celebrated at the mansion house (it was a gentleman’s farm) where the extended family, complete with thirteen cousins, could spread out to play with all their new toys.

The “farm” as we called it had an unending amount of places to fire a young child’s imagination. There the rest of the Aunts’ and Uncles’ presents were distributed. As the oldest child my older brother was left in charge of doling out the soda from the corner bar in the dining room, a massive room anchored at one end by a large fireplace and a large breakfront at the other. The lighting was recessed behind a crown molding that hid five or six different color lights. The wall switch at the center hall entrance had a switch with a row of round buttons and any combination of colored lighting could be punched in the toggles.  Flanking the fireplace mantle on each side were French doors leading to a unheated sunroom, closed up for the winter months. The other three walls wall had a sideboard or table server and one corner held a bar whose folding doors hid away an entire array of bar tools, mixers and sodas. We all watched in anticipation as he poured each soda out for us and waited for the foam to recede or have our noses tickled.

  My memory doesn’t remember any holiday meals in particular although we always sat together as a family and enjoyed the traditional meals but my grandmother had her own unique cookies, lemon and chocolate, rolled out incredibly thin. The recipe was handed down and these days, my sister is the keeper and master of the Bowers’ cookies. Each year, she dutifully sends a CARE package of these delights to the remaining relatives. My daughters try to find time every year to travel to her home and make the cookies.

At days end, when the parent would finally be at their patience end, reluctantly, we piled into the station wagons and slept the short twenty  minute drive home. I am sure we experienced great anticipation of receiving toys during in the annual run-up to Christmas, but looking back, I don’t think it was just receiving gifts that made it a special time. Toys, soda, cookies and candy—all in the same day— were wonderful but being able to share it with your cousins at my grandfather’s made the holiday special.