Hovering tableside this time of year, it's hard not to feel a little left out and invisible among so many celebrating their holidays.
Like some Scrooge, I try to convince myself it's all in a day's work, but inevitably, hauntingly familiar faces in the crowd whisk me back to Christmas repasts in my memory, like the dueling dinners served up by my forever-feuding aunts Martha and Hilde. Their rivalry simmered year-round until it boiled over into an Iron Chef-style Christmas Eve.
Since my grandmother (then our clan's centerpiece) lived at Hilde's and liked to turn in early, we'd start our celebration there at five and eat Hilde's feast first. Stuffed cabbages, ham, pierogi, the works.
By eight, with belts still bursting, presents half-opened, and Grandma nestled all snug in her bed, we'd pack up the party and move it three blocks to Aunt Martha's, where we'd be asked to swallow an identical dinner, dish for dish.
At each sitting, the grown-ups took turns carefully measuring out compliments. "Great kielbasa, Hilde," someone would weigh in. "Not too garlicky, I hope," Auntie H would deflect, in absolute false humility. "Some people put too much in their recipes."
At the sequel spread, somebody else would be obliged to pick up the gauntlet. "The kielbasa's perfect, Martha." "Nice and garlicky, Joe, just the way you like it," Auntie M would claw back into the competition. Religiously, everyone cleaned their plates twice, committing sins of Polish-Catholic gluttony to keep peace on Earth, at least in our little corner of the world.
There was spirited competition among the menfolk, too, who all ran the race to get my loveable runt of an uncle, "Tiny Jim," drunk. Taking turns, they'd corner him into one shot-and-a-beer toast after another, until no one was more thoroughly toasted than Uncle Jim.
One year, their efforts proffered what remains to this day a highlight of family lore, when poor, pickled Uncle Jim proposed a homemade horseradish-eating contest, and insisted on swallowing the first heaping tablespoon of my Uncle Harry's bad-ass, beet-style recipe. While eyewitness accounts of the consequences range from comical sneezing and wheezing to near cardiac arrest, everyone agrees the episode left Uncle Jim's vocal chords crippled all winter.
And then there was Uncle Ron. It was never officially Christmas until, snockered, he did his Little Drummer Boy number, pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming his way through the proceedings, stew pot drum in hand and my Aunt Stella hot on his heels, singing her same old song about serving him divorce papers under the tree in the morning. They stayed married forever, of course. He passed away a few years ago, and she, just a few months later. I guess that's how it can go after you've shared a long life with someone you never really could live without.
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My favorite memory? If you throw in my hippie cousin, "Buzz," getting back in line for seconds and thirds of communion as his midnight mass tradition, it's hard to pick one. But just before we'd sit down to early dinner, Grandma would say grace and then pass a portion of unleavened bread to someone next to her at the table. Tearing away little pieces, we'd each take turns sharing our own hopes and prayers for the family in the coming year.
It was an honest and simple act of reconnection between people who meant so much to each other. And year after year, revisiting such things restores my faith in this bread-breaking, merry-making business. -- Anonymous
Anonymous has seen it all in 25 years of waiting tables and tending bar at some of the Valley's most beloved restaurants.