Years ago, I wrote a commentary for the Christmas Eve edition of the Vail Daily; a story that grows better with each passing year, so, I thought I would share it again today. Like most of us over the age of 50 (heh, heh) I have some ‘interesting’ memories of Christmas past. And the following story took place on Christmas Day, 1965.
For Italian mothers Christmas is the social event of the season—it’s their raison d’être. They clean. They cook. They bake. They orchestrate the day. In essence, Christmas is what Italian women live for. So it was that during junior year college Christmas-break I asked my latest squeeze to join my family for Christmas dinner.
I suppose I should mention that when it comes to the kind of woman that drives Italian mothers crazy, my new girlfriend was the poster child. She didn’t clean, she didn’t cook, and she didn’t bake; however, she was blonde, she dressed to the nines and had a figure that would put a ‘Barbie Doll’ to shame.
Karen and I had only been dating for about a month. She was from an upper-class ‘white bread’ neighborhood on Chicago’s North Shore. She was curious about my background growing up in an Italian household in an ethnic neighborhood on Chicago’s west side; so, when I extended the invitation to join me and my family for Christmas dinner she unhesitatingly said “Yes.”
It’s also important to understand that I come from an extraordinarily loving family that embraced anyone and everyone I’ve ever brought home with open arms. My parents treated my friends like royalty. However, on this occasion I wasn’t the middle child bringing home a friend for dinner; on this occasion I was the eldest single male bringing a “girlfriend” to Christmas dinner—there IS a difference.
Soon after introducing Karen to my extended family, my aunts began grilling her like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Within minutes they ascertained Karen didn’t clean, didn’t cook and didn’t bake—funny how Italian mothers glean those things almost instantly. Meanwhile, the men in the family were equally perceptive in assessing Karen’s many fine qualities; and their reaction was epitomized by the enduring words of my uncle Vito who exclaimed, “Holy cow, she’s built like a Barbie Doll!
For the uninitiated, it’s important to understand that Italian mothers begin preparing for Christmas shortly after Labor Day. There are Crèches to be displayed (we had two) as well as special Christmas music boxes, Christmas tablecloths, Christmas napkins, Christmas doilies, yuletide candles & candleholders, and every form of cherub, angel, Santa, reindeer, and snowman known to man; not to mention the petite gift baskets my mother made for everyone who sat at our Christmas table—and God bless my mother’s soul, she included Karen too.
Turkey with all the ‘fixins were featured on the Christmas dinner menu. But like most Italian families in those days, we began the feast with antipasto, roasted peppers, black and green olives, salami, prosciutto, provolone, and artichokes. This was followed by homemade ravioli, meatballs, Italian sausage and bricole (pounded and rolled flank steak seasoned with parmesan cheese, parsley, and a touch of garlic,) all simmering in Mom’s spaghetti gravy, (btw, its gravy, not sauce.)
Our home was a typical west-side Chicago bungalow, which meant that even with extender-leaves the dining room table couldn’t accommodate everyone; so, like many families, we used card tables for the kids. But because of my seniority (oldest male among the cousins) Karen and I made the cut and were seated with the adults—and that’s where the trouble began.
Karen made it through the antipasto without incident. But as the ravioli, meatballs, bricole and sausages were being served, Karen nudged me and asked, “Don’t ‘Eye-talians’ eat turkey or ham on Christmas?” “That comes later” I said,“…and it’s Italian, not Eye-talian.” She nodded acknowledgment. Just about that time my Uncle Bud passed the platter of ravioli to Karen who said she was looking forward to tasting all the ‘ethnic’ foods. Good for Karen I thought, she was a quick study and using the word ‘ethnic’ was certainly better than ‘Eye-talian,’ but my mother wasn’t fooled.
Trouble reared its head when my ‘other’ Uncle Bud (yes, I had two) asked Karen if she had ever tasted homemade ravioli. Desperately wanting to fit in, Karen responded, “No, but I really like Chef Boyardee” …my Aunt Donna and Aunt Wanda rolled their eyes; my mother made the sign of the cross. Then, before I could save Karen from further interrogation, my Aunt Donna queried somewhat censoriously, “What does your family have on Christmas dear?” Sensing her answer would be scrutinized, Karen blurted out “Sometimes we have knockwurst.” You could have heard a pin drop.
The silence was broken when my 13-year-old cousin Mikey, who was listening from the kids’ table, exclaimed “Knockers?” Suddenly I felt as if everyone at the table was staring at Karen’s bosom—which as it turns out, they were. Fortunately, the remainder of the dinner was relatively uneventful except for Karen’s occasional use of the word, “Eye-talian.”
But Karen was saving the best for last. As we finished dessert and the men sipped anisette and espresso, every female over the age of twelve got up from the table and began clearing dishes and bringing them into the kitchen; Karen lit a cigarette.
Karen and I stopped dating soon afterwards, but what I will remember most about that Christmas were the nurturing words my mother whispered to me as she quietly pulled me aside later that evening. “You know son; Karen seems like a very nice girl—JUST DON’T MARRY HER!”
Quote of the day: “If Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under a tree.”