Sifting through the card basket, I take one last peak at Christmas. A card from Alan and Janet reminds me that ‘the magic of the season is all around.’ Kathie’s greeting, ‘May your holidays be wrapped in wonder and love,’ makes me feel almost tingly again. Today I am still savoring one of those ‘special moments’ referenced in Linda’s beautiful handmade card—the day I celebrated Russian Christmas with Aunt Donna.
Through the years I can recall many Christmas visits with my mom and dad to Aunt Donna and Uncle Ray’s when Cousins Bill and Danny were toddlers and I was a school boy. We visited during the week of the first Christmas, December 25th. As time passed, Daisy Jean, my mother, and I—then just I—made the visits. In their married lives, Bill and his wife, Wanda, relocated to Wisconsin in the 1990’s; Dan and Lisa and family still live near Aunt Donna. Russian Christmas on January 7th had always been a whole other celebration for Aunt Donna with her in-laws. Sister-in-law, Dolly, usually hosted the first Christmas for their clan, and Aunt Donna the Russian Christmas gatherings.
With the last of six chemotherapy treatments behind her, as of December 19, I telephoned right after the New Year, hoping that she would be well enough to enjoy the upcoming Russian Christmas. Aunt Donna surprised me with an unexpected invitation. My aunt told me that she was also hosting the traditional ethnic dinner on Christmas Eve Tuesday and that everyone would be pitching in. She encouraged me to come early on Wednesday if I wanted to help out in the kitchen—music to my ears . . .
I park along the front yard of the ranch on Cascade Drive. Three knocks and I open the door to a chorus of ‘hellos’ from Dan and his kids, Stephen and Julia. I focus on a white-turbaned Aunt Donna sitting comfortably on the end of the sofa. I walk to her and we exchange hugs. Dan takes my jacket and hat to the bedroom. I park on a chair. Stephen asks me if I have written any more articles for the newspaper. Impressed with his concern, I respond, “Not since the two that were published in August.” I go on to tell him that I have a full plate with writing projects as it is, but that it would be nice to do an occasional feature. I just haven’t got around to re-connecting with the editor.
Then, as though she might have been ready to burst, Aunt Donna blurts out, in my direction, “They ate all the pierogis last night!” I think she felt bad, having raised my expectations during our phone call two days earlier. She had been telling me how happy she was to have been able to join Dolly and Lisa for their pierogi-making holiday tradition. The trio had made 100 potato and lekvar-filled dumplings. I assure her not to worry, that I will be fine with the offerings on today’s menu.
Sensing a presence in the kitchen, I walk around the corner and see Dan’s wife, Lisa, quietly organizing items on the table. We exchange hugs and make small talk. I may not have seen her since Aunt Donna’s surgery six months ago. The chicken pieces, all 24 of them—breast, thigh, and drumsticks—have already been breaded by Aunt Donna. She also has cooked a large quantity of sauce, and meat balls are simmering in the slow cooker . . .
I can’t help thinking about how many chicken pieces my aunt may have breaded in 25 years in Prepared Foods at the West Mifflin Giant Eagle near Kennywood, where she was employed after the death of Uncle Ray until January, 2013. Both Dolly and Aunt Donna were widowed at relatively early ages and pioneered new direction in their lives to keep their families afloat. More than just being “sisters” by marriage, their common bonds have forged a beautiful friendship through nearly six decades . . .
The afternoon is waning. The breaded chicken still needs to be sautéed before transfer to the oven. Then pasta will be prepared on the stove top for the chicken parmesan. Lisa asks me to pour oil into both fry pans on the front burners. When the oil has heated, she begins to place the chicken in the pans. I seem to have found a niche, standing beside her at the stove. Cousin Dan, who has been up and down the basement steps, finishing some laundry for his mother, lets me know that the beer is on the back porch. I make a quick trip just a few steps away, out the side door, to the frozen porch. I grab a can of Iron City and pop it open. How refreshing on the palette, chilled by Jack Frost.
Lisa gently turns chicken pieces at regular intervals to prevent sticking and to ensure a light golden brown, as I shuttle sauce-lined baking dishes between table and stove to assist with smooth transfer of the browned pieces. Tending the chicken and just being there, we are enjoying ourselves. Soon the next wave of guests arrives—Dolly, her daughter Michelle, along with two of her children, Jessica and Ethan. While Ethan is still a school boy, Jessica has only her student teaching to complete, and she will be searching for an elementary, special education position.
The last time I remember seeing Jessica at Aunt Donna’s, she was punching all the boys and making them cry. I say ‘hello’ to her and dare ask if she remembers me.
“Yaaaaaa,” Jessica utters with a cute scowl of twenty-two-year-old annoyance. I laugh aloud and Dolly, her grandmother, smiles a bit awkwardly.
Now Aunt Donna ventures into the kitchen to kibitz with us and to check on the food preparation. Sensing from her body language and low groaning that holiday festivities have caught up with her, we shoo her back into the living room where Michelle and the kids are playing a new version of Yahtzee at a card table with screaming and pounding . . .
The noise takes me back to Christmas evenings here in the old days with Cousins Bill and Danny playing with their toys. I smile, recalling the racket that ensued when their other cousins, little Michelle and Brian, Dolly’s kiddoes, joined in the commotion. It is remarkable to have been an observer of four generations of this family. (It may be hard for readers to understand this, but even as a child and teenager, while I surely was a participant in family events, a certain part of me—maybe the writing part—felt like I was detached and absorbing a living movie. The reels unravel as I write.)
Dolly sees that Lisa and I have been teaming fluidly, but she remains close by to jump in as needed. Chicken still not all finished on the stove top, we keep filling baking dishes. The notion that it might have been advisable to use frozen, breaded chicken is briefly considered, but quickly dismissed by the kitchen team, as we sense that the dinner will be worth the wait. Aunt Donna reminds us to prep the tater tots on a shallow baking pan for the kids. I find the bag of tater tots in the freezer, then grease and fill the pan with the nuggets. They will be placed in the oven with the chicken.
When all the chicken has been arranged on the baking sheets and transferred into the oven with the tater tots, Dolly and Lisa fill two large pots with water and a little oil so that the pasta can be cooked a bit later. Soon after, Michelle’s husband, Jim, arrives with son, Brandon, who is a freshman at Gannon University this year. A talented shortstop, he matriculated to Gannon in September on a baseball scholarship, but Michelle later confides to me that Brandon has experienced some difficulty with the demands of college classes and crack-of-dawn workouts. She and Jim have invested much time and energy over the years supporting Brandon’s baseball, from Little League forward, and they are hopeful that baseball has not come to an end for Brandon.
Mustachioed Brandon has grown up for sure—no longer the pint-sized kiddo running from his punchy-poky sister. He makes the rounds to greet the guests, which seems to me a rarity for a fellow his age. I took special note of the grace of his departure that night. Again he circulated, hugging his women and offering a warm handshake to all the gents. The image of Brandon enfolding his arms around Aunt Donna in the kitchen is freeze-framed in my memory. I feel blessed to be part of the family support that our aunt so deserves.
Before long the gang in the living room hoots and hollers upon the arrival of Dolly’s son, Brian, whom I haven’t seen in years. With him is one of his twin sons, who escaped the illness afflicting the other. As a child Brian was a “shrimpy,” blonde-haired lad, always polite. Now, a full-chested, robust father and auto technician, he responds to my ‘Hi, Brian,’ as though it had been only a few months since last seeing one another . . .
Dan carries the last basket of laundry up the steps and places it near his mother so she can begin folding at the sofa. Now Dan joins the kitchen fun. He pours two boxes of spaghetti into the pots of boiling water as he checks on the progress of the baked chicken. My friend, Jay, has been planning to stop by when his work day is done. He has texted me to find out the house address for his GPS. This house can be a bit tricky to find if you haven’t been visiting here for as long as I have. I text Jay back that he has plenty of time, as dinner will not be ready until around 7:00.
Meanwhile, Lisa and Dolly are prepping the tossed salad at the kitchen table. The serving dish loaded with salt and pepper chips and stuffed celery on the dining room table, along with assorted cookies on the buffet, have been a godsend for noisy bellies. I hear the knock on the front door and glide over there to greet Jay. Now the guests are all here. Dan offers a test piece or two of pasta to his mother to make certain that it is done to her preferred texture. It is.
Buffet style, people load plates in the kitchen and camp out as they can. Jay and I find seats near the window end of the dining room table. My friend, Jessica, wiggles left on her side of the table, giving Jay and me a bit more room. I can taste the intangible seasoning of ‘family’ that went into this dinner—the saucy spaghetti, tender meatballs, and the chicken, breaded by those experienced hands of Aunt Donna and nursed to completion by Dan and Lisa. I sample the tater tots, too . . .
Jay and I are the last to leave, not long after Dan, Lisa and the kids. A few feet away from the front door, near the TV shelves which display her shining, handmade ceramic nativity set, Aunt Donna, Jay, and I huddle close to say our good-byes. I know how important these two days of celebration have been for this woman who adores Christmas and wanted to feel it one more time in this house, so steeped in holiday memories. I also sense how these celebrations will lift her spirits for what lay ahead—the possibility of new treatment regimens; a pending surgical repair; not to mention selling the house, along with inevitable uncertainties of a new year.
For a brief second the eyes of Aunt Donna settle on my eyes, brimming with the emotion of those thoughts, and bonded by what we have experienced today. I look down, zipping my jacket, and turn, following Jay out the frost-coated storm door into the sparkling night. Yes, Mrs. Hallmark—magic and wonder—I get that now.