A Christmas Memory

by Annie Stein
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steinxmasOne of my best memories, one that is worth much more to me than money in the bank, is of Christmas at my Grandfather’s when I was a young girl. My grandfather was a larger than life personage. At least to me. In actuality, he only stood about 5 feet 8 inches, if that. But he had girth. He was first generation American Irish, born of immigrant parents and raised in the Bronx. The term self-made was created for him. After winning a scholarship to Fordham University and then Fordham Law, he went on to become a successful lawyer and New York State senator. He made a fortune, and even without the height, carried himself like a man to the manner born.

He considered the 11 children his wife bore him, part of his fortune as well, and loved each one dearly. Though, my mother, being his first born, in my opinion, was his favorite. I idolized my grandfather. I have little memory of his wife, my grandmother, who died when I was three. I didn’t miss knowing her at all because for me, he filled the bill. He was everything. Grandfather, Grandmother, Hero and Chief. He stands before me today as clearly as he did all those years ago, in his navy, pinstriped suit, hand on his gold pocket watch, blue eyes twinkling behind rimless eye glasses, a smile inching across his face.

On Christmas day, all of his children and their children would drive in from all of our respective houses in the out lying suburbs of New York, from Long Island to Connecticut, wearing our new Christmas outfits, our station wagons bursting with gifts and excitement, to 1175 Park Avenue where Grandpa occupied the entire 4th floor. Easters and Thanksgivings were spent there as well, but Christmas, that was the day we waited for all year. Rockefeller Center couldn’t have had a bigger tree, and there wasn’t a store in New York, not Best and Co., Lord & Taylors, or FAO Schwartz, that had more exquisitely wrapped gifts.

steinxmas2We’d arrive around 3 in the afternoon, walk into the lobby of 1175, leaving all of our squabbling over who got what and who didn’t, back in the car. Heads held high, my two sisters and I, in our matching winter coats, red for the season, with our white fur muffs dangling from their straps on our wrists, were proud to be greeted by the doormen.

“My, how you three ladies have grown” or “Merry Christmas you three lovelies” would come from the Irishmen dressed up in their gold button uniforms as they tipped their hats with white gloved hands. By then they had each had several nips from the Christmas bottles they’d received from grateful tenants, but to us they were the Queen’s Guard minding Buckingham Palace.

When the elevator opened to my grandfather’s foyer the festivities were already in process. We stepped out into a world of glamour with piano music coming from the living room accompanied by the sounds of ice cubes clinking in hi ball glasses, mixed with the tinkling of charms on the thick gold bracelets each of my aunts wore. They came to greet us, all four of my mothers younger sisters, the scent of Shalimar engulfing us as we slipped out of our coats, handing them to the Irish girl wearing a black dress with matching white apron and frilly cap, to be hung in the closet.

steinxmas3Moving into the living room, dominated by the tree and a full army of gifts, there he sat, my Grandpa, holding court on the couch, saving the spot right beside him for my mother. One of my uncles would be playing the piano while everyone milled around, drinks in hand, picking up bits and pieces of whatever song was being played. Like good Irish Catholics my aunts and uncles reproduced like rabbits so there were dozens of cousins running around dressed up like my sisters and me, trying not to spill coca colas or knock over an antique object. The scene was chaos of the highest and best degree. My uncles dressed in suits and ties, aunts in satin cocktail dresses, everyone smiling, laughter competing with the piano tunes. If someone had asked me what my idea of heaven was, it was everything and everyone right there in that room.

We kids counted, counted, and then recounted the gifts under the tree several times before Ellen, my grandfather’s cook, came in to announce dinner was about to be served. We all loved Ellen. My mother and her siblings had been raised on her cooking and her love. In the summers when we went to my grandfather’s house in Quogue, it was Ellen’s breakfast aromas that woke us up each morning. That amazing smell, bacon and eggs frying, coffee brewing and bread toasting permeated the house and tickled our noses until we opened our eyes.

On Christmas it was her roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy that made us forget about the army under the tree for a while. We weren’t crazy about the French green beans with the baby pearl onions. Ellen would walk around the “children’s table” reminding us that unless we each took at least two bites of the beans, (we could leave the onions on our plates) we wouldn’t get dessert. None of us believed her. There wasn’t a single one of us, not me, my sisters, nor any of my cousins who didn’t claim to be Ellen’s “favorite” because she treated each of us like we were.

yule log“Where’s my sugar” she would say, pulling us close for a hug. Black and beautiful with high cheek bones and strong hands with dark pink palms that I thought fascinating, Ellen claimed to be “black Irish” and my Grandpa always agreed.

Dessert was always a slice of Yule log, these long chocolate covered yellow cakes filled with chocolate and raspberry topped with Schrafft’s vanilla ice cream. My mother’s family loved their Schrafft’s ice cream. To this day I rate all brands of coffee ice cream against Schrafft’s coffee ice cream which was far and away my mother’s favorite food on the planet. After dessert, when the kids were sugared up and the adults a bit liquored up after cocktails, wine with dinner and Champagne at dessert, the kids attacked the army under the tree while the grownups downed coffee for the drive back to the burbs.

Ribbons and bows, paper in red, green and gold went flying in the air as we screamed “I Love it” or “Just What I wanted” or “Look what I got.” There were Betsy Wetsie Dolls, and Vanity sets, Electric trains and power trucks, bathrobes from Best and Co. My godfather, Uncle Jerry, who bought and sold horses and played polo refused to admit I was a girl so there was always a cowboy hat or pair of cowboy boots under the tree for me from him. One year it was an Annie Oakley outfit, which meant he was getting close.

These Christmases stopped when I was eleven and my grandfather died. The entire world that my grandfather provided for us stopped with his death. That’s life, isn’t it. But the memories have a life of their own. They’ve lit up and decorated my Christmas days for decades and I wouldn’t trade them for all of the money in the world.

 

LA based Writer, Annie Stein, has written for C and More Magazines, NYTimes and is a regular blogger on Huffington Post. She runs creative writing workshops for at risk teens.

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