Aunty Mary’s Christmas
As imperfect as it may be
This is the way I remember it.
Rising excitement bubbled through the house.
From figurines on the mantle,
To garlands draping the fireplace.
To red and green candles on the table.
All the finishing touches laid with care,
To the scented, stately tree
Standing in the place of honour
in the window bay of the dining room.
It was surely made for such a display.
Tiny shards of colour
Danced slowly across the holiday rooms
Cast by the cold light of a low winter’s sun
Through stained glass windows
And prism’d cut-glass door knobs.
The house looked and smelled,
Even tasted of Christmas.
Everything was ready
Except for one thing.
We first must bundle into the car and drive to Aunty Mary’s for a pre-holiday gathering, THE holiday gathering. The family gathering. It wouldn’t be Christmas without this pilgrimage to honour the place that was the common thread in the lives of all the Aunts and Uncles, brothers sisters and cousins. 516 Silverthorne Avenue. It was a link to Christmases past and an assurance that the bonds forged there were not forgotten.
In time it became just “Christmas with Aunty Mary”. In my memory, Christmas was always her occasion and even when Grandad was around, he was relegated to his patriarchal role to oversee the noise and chaos. Christmas was incomplete without this ritual marking the last step in the grand countdown.
We marched through the front door, not the usual back door that let on to the kitchen, but by the formal entrance with a bundle of presents and the customary orange jello salad, mandarin slices magically suspended and shaking with every step. I ran to the living room where Grandad, in his day, would be seated in his chair, a curl of smoke rising up and a length of ash hanging from the cigarette between two yellowed fingers. And when his days were done there lingered still the aroma of tobacco smoke hovering around his place. Uncle Jimmy would burst through the door and begin grousing about how hard he slaved over the stove to produce the cakes and cookies that were laid out for us. Of course he did no such thing and we all knew it. But still, it was his private joke. The magic to produce the treats was all Aunty Mary’s, but Uncle Jimmy took great delight in needling her. It was all good fun. He took particular delight in getting under the skin of his son-in-law Richard. And when Uncle Jimmy departed the scene I did my best to carry on the tradition. I believe Richard forgave me. The two guardians of the hearth, a cast iron Boston Bulldog in black and cream and a ceramic Golden Spaniel were moved aside to make way for the glass-topped coffee table. It was spread with cotton-wool snow and tiny figures waving from tiny houses, tiny trees and a tiny church and a tiny string of tiny lights, and if you were four or six or maybe eight with noses level to the tabletop and stared and squinted just a bit, it was possible to see the figures move and gaslight twinkling from lampposts and candles glowing from tiny windows of tiny houses.
Fragile plates and Staffordshire teacups perched with delicate care sat on knees that trembled slightly in fear of a spill or, God forbid, a crash that sounded like a fall of icicles from the eaves. Those cups and saucers were fragile works of art, perhaps the gifts of a long ago trousseau, brought out from the cabinet in the dining room for just this occasion. They were precious beyond replacement value. They carried in their shallow bowls the memories of distant homelands. Plates stacked with butter tarts and shortbread, chocolate chip cookies and paper cups of ginger-ale. I don’t recall dinner being served, just the buttery sweet treats and Christmas candies spilling from bowls placed where the youngsters could reach them. When the cups were emptied and the crumbs all swept away, it was time for final hugs and awkward kisses. The scent of lavender and rose water hung in the air.
Gather up the assigned presents and make our way home through the driving snow.
This was Christmas.
And then to sleep,
If I could,
Dreaming of what the morning would bring.