Thanks to Hanna for the inspiration — her A to Z holiday photo montage kicked my brain into gear.
My cousin and his mom (that makes her my aunt) visited us today, and as we sat around the dinner table, after dinner and dessert, I was reminded of the countless similar experiences I had while growing up. The holidays this year have seemed sort of calm, in the way of family mishaps, minus, of course, my sister’s refusal to attend the annual Christmas Eve bash with cousins (yes, the one that has happened since perhaps even before I was born, but certainly as long as I can remember).
My sister’s refusal of the party invitation sent the whole family into a tail spin. My sister’s distance from the “family” in general is a source of pain and confusion for some of us. (Okay, so by “family” in quotes, I don’t mean to imply that –FAMILY — just that you know, our family has its traditions, and well, my sister seemed to fly in the face of them). Today, though, after the long afternoon with my cousin and aunt, after the meal, some wine, and dessert, I began to wonder how much of my life has actually been spent in kitchens with kin. I’d venture that on the conservative side, it would come in around close to half — sadly, much of that half during the first couple decades of my life. I miss it.
My extended family lived within a couple of blocks, possibly a couple of miles, of one another for the bulk of my childhood and early adulthood. That meant that we spent significant time in each others’ kitchens. We drank lots of tea, smoked cigarettes, and when too young, just listened in surreptitiously to the adult gossip about some other absent family member. So, when the annual Christmas Eve bash rolled around, all we had to do was gussie up a bit, make more food, and gather round. Travel to said bash involved a walk around the block, possibly a few mile car ride if pressed.
I have vivid memories (and if I could dig up the photos, would happily post them here) , of our family (at least the females in our family) cleaning up after a big Christmas Eve meal, and my aunt telling us all, “Many hands make light work,” while the boys and men drank and played. I guess those hands also made memories. Etched in my mind is my cousin grinning with an empty can of soup, headed for the trash, while my hands are deep in hot soapy water. We joked. It didn’t seem like work, so I guess that aunt was right.
My memories of Christmas Eve extend to the last Christmas that my mom was alive. Somehow, she got herself to the party, two months before her final breath. Even then, even under dire circumstances, the party was not to be missed. Something happened then, after her death. We all, us cousins from the South Side, started marrying, getting jobs, moving, having kids, and our little universe underwent its own big bang. We started to move, not just a couple of houses down, but across the city, to the god-forbid North Side, and even worse to the Suburbs. In some coincidence of timing, my mom’s death seemed to herald the death of the family Christmas Eve party as we knew it.
The party still happens, and come hell or high water, I attend. But, many of the former attendees have demurred, and have been missed. The party seems tamer to me now, less rowdy, less wild. Perhaps it is age. I also think it is a relic of our unfamiliarity with each other. We are not the same kind of family we used to be, now that we see each other only at the more formal occasions and not around the kitchen table on a weekly basis.
At our most recent Christmas Eve bash, my sister recalled her first spanking from the very same aunt who intoned, “Many hands make light work.” She ran across the street without asking permission. When I rolled my eyes at her across the table, everyone guffawed. Of course, she got spanked. What was she thinking? As the older sister, I knew the ropes and would never dare such a feat. We lived with that aunt and those cousins for six weeks at some point in our early lives. That kind of family is rare. It is the kind of family that takes care of its members, no matter what. The physical distance between us and pace of our lives now make those arrangements seems quaint and old-fashioned.
Not that I am pining in some Lost City sort of way for the good old days. In fact, Ehrenhalt’s book infuriated me beyond belief in its oversimplification of and apologetics for the insulated and regulated life on the South Side of Chicago. However, the family that made its mark on me, and the community that gave my whatever center I posses, was grown in the vat of reliance upon nearby insular family.
My cousin who visited today spent time with us growing up, too. We talked fondly at Christmas Eve about the day that we played “Emergency” on the stairway and broke the bannister by tying a jump rope to it so we could climb to some small sibling’s rescue. I suppose my dad was angry, but it was all so funny, that I forget the punishment.
Anyway, kin in the kitchen, as Hanna so aptly titled it, has provided not only physical but also emotional and spiritual sustenance for my life. I do miss its frequency and nearness.