Monday, December 7, 2009

The Traveling Christmas Show

Christmas was always such a busy time, growing up. When we were real little and still living in Pittsburgh, it was such a flurry of activity having our own Christmas, and then heading off to both grandparents’ place. I know it was all pretty hard on my parents but as kids, we loved it! Three Christmas extravaganzas of cookies, good food, presents and cookies! Lots of cousins to play with! And did I mention the cookies?

My dad’s dad, Grandpa N, always took movies… the old 8mm silent kind and he always used a light… a big, brilliant, blinding light. It was so bright we could barely open our eyes wide enough to see what we were opening. Then when it was over, he’d turn it off and the room would seem positively cave-like and we’d spend the next 10 minutes walking into things until our eyes adjusted. Too bad the camera was off by then… it would have been much more entertaining.

In later years, my aunt had those movies knocked off onto VHS. It was funny then to see essentially the same movie over and over again but with the characters aging 1 year each time.

Hey, there’s a bunch of blinded kids opening presents...

Oh, look at the baby...

Now it’s dinner time… there’s the table. Look at all the food.

Everybody wave… Now...CUT!

Now it’s the next Christmas… look at the same blinded kids, eww, what are they wearing?

There’s another baby…

And on it goes…

It was agonizing to see myself going through each of the horrid styles of the 1970’s.

Several years of plaid pants… Auuuugh!

The Saturday Night Fever year of silk shirt and necklace… Gack!

The Urban Cowboy year with a freakin’ cowboy hat with a wrap-around feather the size of a vulture’s ass!  Who the hell did I think I was, Charlie Daniels?

Nevertheless, it was cool seeing my cousins growing up right before my eyes. In fact, we only got to see the cousins in yearly increments anyway, once we left The Burgh. (I was 6.) As the first-born of 2 first-borns, I was the alpha cousin, and in later years, it was pretty much up to me to maintain order among the chilluns. This is where my high school class ring came in very handy. I learned from my dad just how powerful a good flick of the ring was. In fact, I think I still have an ornate, backwards “D” on the top of my skull from his Duquesne ring.

Once we moved away from Pittsburgh, my siblings and I got to enjoy a new Christmas perk… Christmas a week early! The weekend before Christmas, we’d have our own celebration and do the stockings, presents and the whole sha-bang. Then we’d travel to Pittsburgh for the actual holiday and make the Grandparental rounds.

The trip was always hell, especially when we were coming from Chicago… 3 bored, punchy little kids, fighting their seatbelts and each other, trying to listen to a scratchy AM radio. Mom still smoked back then so we had those regular noxious gas intervals. She’d crack the window, thinking the smoke would go out. Unfortunately, it was mostly the freezing air rushing in.

But it was all worth it when we got to my grandparents’ place for the best meal of the year… The Christmas Eve Feast of the 7 Fishes. It’s an Italian thing. There would be fried smelts and shrimp, fish fillets, heaps of pasta, plus chicken, wedding soup, and Lord knows how much other savory stuff. I’d eat until I couldn’t move any more.

Later in the evening, after the dishes were cleared and the olives, celery and cookies were put out, Grandma would break out the bingo game. They used to play Bingo in the old days to kill time before midnight mass, but by this time they weren’t going to the late mass any more. But Grandma would save up change all year for us to use for Bingo and we’d have the big family Bingo showdown.

I always liked it because it was something that the kids and grownups played together. Although every so often that led to some not-very-kid-friendly terminology getting thrown out after a long, tension-filled game:

Cousin: BINGO!!!

My mom: Oh HORSESHIT!!

God Rest Ye Merry Merchantmen
Years later when I was all grown up and managing a record store in Cleveland, the holidays were just brutal. From the beginning of November through the middle of January, to paraphrase Al Bundy, it was like “one long month… Helluary.”

As manager, I’d be working pretty regular 12-16 hour days. The place would be mobbed… just accounting for all the money was practically a full-time job. (I do admit that there’s nothing like the sight of more than $13,000 in cash sitting on your desk). But we would be so busy, I’d go home and collapse in bed and have dreams that I was at work, tending the register and clearing customers. I’d wake up and be like, “Fuuuuck! I can’t even escape with sleep…)

I didn’t have any family in Cleveland. The closest kin I had were, you guessed it, in Pittsburgh. So when we’d finally get permission to close up on Christmas Eve, usually around 5:30 or 6:00, I’d shut’er all down, bolt for the car and bust ass down the turnpike for Pittsburgh.

I’d get to Grandma and Grandpa’s house about 9 or so and Grandma would have soup on the stove and sandwich fixin’s at the ready. Grandpa would appear with an IC Light. After the meal, Grandma would tell me that when she heard I was coming, she went and got some Klondikes for me, which at the time, could only be obtained in Pittsburgh.  They were always my favorite treat as a kid. 

I hope she knew how much those Christmas Eves meant to me. It was like an oasis of comfort in a sea of aggravation. To be able to settle into a big easy chair and chat with my grandparents and just… breathe…

It was home, sweet home.


CrackerLilo said...

I worked in retail for a number of years. I won't often say this, but Al Bundy (or his writers) had it right--Helluary, absolutely. I try to be nice now and sometimes fail spectacularly. I'm so glad your grandparents could provide you an oasis, though. That is a wonderful thing to have, and I say this as someone who is joyously anticipating skipping the extended family Christmas for once.

I'll bet all those cookies added an extra layer of fun for your parents, what with the sugar. :-) Speaking of sweet treats, I didn't know Klondikes started out as a Pittsburgh thing.

Still A. Fan said...

are we long lost brothers? that description is eerily similar. we put the 8mm film on video and my daughter always asks me why we're always squinting. i say "because dear, your great-uncle jim had a 5 billion lume candle power light on his 128 pound camera". I clearly remember at my wedding in 1995 the professional photographer had to keep asking him to turn the damn thing off. he has since passed on and now i wonder where that spotlight is. its probably glowing in a box in an attic somewhere lined with felt.

Mary Ann said...

Same food. Different drapes. Bigger kids. Same line-up in front of the tree. (Same tree).
Christmas is remembering, reliving and rejoincing in the present (s).

Mary Ann said...

oops rejoicing in the presence and the present (s).
God rest ye merry merchantmen/You've made the Yuletide pay./Remember your cash registers must rest on Christmas Day/to gather strength for prompt returns/of customers in need./ Glad tidings of profit and greed.

Cher Duncombe said...

What wonderful grandparents and great memories. Klondikes were the best and in the summer, they still are!

bluzdude said...

My career in retail has made me VERY nice to people that work in stores. I know how much it used to mean to me when a customer was especially nice to me, so I try to pay it forward. I'll drive Pinky (girlfriend) crazy when grocery shopping because I'll always insist on putting an item back where it belongs, should we change our mind on it.

And yes, Klondikes were born at Isaly's, which is a venerable Pittsburgh company. It was a happy day for me indeed, when I first saw they were exporting them to the rest of the country, including my local grocery store. Yinz can keep the Primanti's... I'll take a Klondike bar!

Still A Fan: Could be, bro... could be. My eyes haven't dilated since 1975... how 'bout yours? I think those movie light bulbs have a half-life.

Mary Ann: Welcome to the Poet Laureate of Darwinfish! I'm always happy in the presence of presents.

Yes, they were. And "are", I should say. We still have Grandpa, as mentioned in the Wedding post in October. 93-years old and still a pisser.

Anonymous said...

How'd you get a seat at the adult table for Christmas? I was always banished to the kids table... a rickety card table in the living room with various other cousin-castoffs.

bluzdude said...

At that point, we didn't have enough kids for a kids table. It took another couple of years before we could populate one, and I was dragged kicking and screaming away from the grownups table. We had the same card table in the living room.

I remember one year, I think I'd even graduated college, and they tried to put me at the kids table and I was like, "Um... NO. I'm turning in my kid-table card, I'll stay in here, thankyouverymuch." Y'know... with the food and the wine.