Thursday, December 25, 2008

Billy Boy!” grandma cried and gave him a big hug and kiss. First it felt warm and then too hot and he wriggled away. Pup pup was standing behind her at the door and he laughed. Pup pup's face was scratchy when Billy kissed him. He smelled like his after shave, Old Spice, which came in a white bottle that they got him for Christmas. Daddy's aftershave was in a green bottle, it was Mennen.

Mummy and Kathy were coming in behind him. “Close the door, close the door!” grandma said to them. “You want all the cold get in and all the warm get out?” She looked at Billy, so he shook his head. Then she laughed and hugged him again, until he ran ahead.

He ran down the hall, and looked into the living room when he heard voices. The room was darker than outside except around the lamps, the big one standing by the chair and the radio with the red shade, and the lamp on the table in the corner with the orange shade that looked like an umbrella with pictures on it. One of the end tables was gone and in its place was a Christmas tree. Billy was looking for Uncle Carl but he didn’t see him. He looked especially at the big black piano. Instead there were three people standing looking at him. He knew them. They were sort of aunts and uncles but older like grandma and pup up.

“Who’s that?” Mr. DisPasquale said. "Is that Billy? Hey, Wolule--que ce dice?”
“Look at him! He’s so big!” Mrs. DiPasquale sang. “And so fair! Look at him!”
“He still looks like Flora,” Mrs. Gelfo said.
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. DiPasquale agreed.
“Have you been a good boy?” Mrs. DiPasqaule said. “Are you going to get lots of Christmas presents from Santa Claus?”
“Or just a lump of coal?” Mr. Depasquale said just as pup pup came in, and they laughed.
“Of course he’s a good boy,” Mrs. Gelfo said.
“He’s my Billy boy!” grandma said. She looked like she would hug him again but he got away, and they all laughed. But by then they were all making a loud fuss over Kathy, and saying how big she was, too.

He left the noise and looked around the dining room. It was dark, too. All the wood was dark and shiny--the doors, the big dining room table, the cabinets and the wood around the fireplace--and he could smell the polish. There was a string of Christmas lights across the mantle, but they weren’t on. There were just the little gas flames of two lamps with their curved glass covers, up on the cabinet with the drawers he could now reach.

But in the small kitchen the big light was on, and it was bright. Billy looked in. There were trays and dishes on the table but it was all stuff grandma was getting ready to cook.

Now everyone was coming into the dining room so Billy turned around and stood by the table.

Grandma was saying something in Italian and Mr. DePasquale--his name was Vince, Billy remembered--said something back and shook his head. “No, no,” he finally said. “We have to go now. You’re busy, everybody’s got to cook, so we go.”

“We just dropped by to bring some olive oil we got in Pittsburgh,” Mrs. Depasquale explained to Flora. “We weren’t gonna stay. But you come by on Wednesday, we’ll be home.” Flora nodded and smiled. Today was Monday and Christmas was Tuesday. They were for immediate family. The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, was the day for visiting friends and relatives.

They were all standing near the small doorway to the hall so Billy outsmarted them like Hopalong Cassidy and went past the dining room table and into the living room the other way, through the big opening, past the big radio. He headed straight for the candy dish on the coffee table. But mummy saw him.

“Just one!” she said. So he took one silver wrapped Hershey's kiss, unwrapped it and ate it as they all kept talking and walking towards the front door. Mrs. DiPasquale and Mrs. Gelfo were nice but they were big and their flowery dresses smelled like lots of perfume and powder. He had been to Mr and Mrs Gelfo’s house. They had a bowl with goldfish in it. Mrs. Gelfo wore thick glasses so her eyes were real big, and looked like two brown fishes swimming in a goldfish bowl.

As soon as they left, Billy asked grandma, “Where’s Uncle Carl?”

“Up the street,” she said. Then she turned to Flora and said something in Italian.

“He’s up at the high school playing basketball,” Flora said. “He’ll be home soon.”

“Maybe you like some jumbalone?” grandma said, and laughed when Billy nodded his head vigorously.

She took Billy into the kitchen and pulled down the silver cookie jar from atop the refrigerator. Inside were the jumbalone. More Italian foods were being sold in stores now, but Flora still hadn’t seen anything like her mother’s jumbalone. They were cookies but with a cake-like quality, shaped like figure eights and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Jumbalone could also be made like a cake in a pan, which is how Ant liked to make it. She put chocolate chips in hers. Flora made hers like this, but no one could get the shapes exactly as mum did, nor did anyone’s taste quite like hers. She suspected that when mum passed on her recipes she always left something out. One evening as they washed dishes Flora suggested this to mum. She didn’t deny it. “ Maybe I want people to like mine best,” she’d said.

Flora put Kathy in the high chair that was kept there for the latest grandchild to need it--first Billy, then Ant’s boy Dickie, then Kathy, and now Ant’s second child, also a boy, also named Billy, after his father. Dad would watch the kids as they had their jumbalones and milk, while Flora went down to the basement with mum to finish preparations for dinner.

As she made her way down the linoleum covered wooden steps, the smells from below rose up to meet her. These were the smells she’d known since her childhood-- flour and the other ingredients of the pasta in the big bowls on the table, the tomato sauce simmering on the stove, the fish baking and broiling in the two ancient ovens. She couldn’t remember very much as far back as when she was Billy’s age--her first clear memories were of the house on Stone St. in Greenbriar, and mostly of this house--but these smells were eternal.

This was the Christmas vigil dinner, and no meat was served, and it was the one day of the year when mum served seafood in such profusion. In quick Italian Mum brought Flora up to date on the progress of tonight's dishes, while she rolled out pasta dough on the wood table in the center of the room. She’d already made the spaghetti for tonight that would be served with fish sauce, and now it was time to make the ravioli for tomorrow.

Thin strips of cod were in the roasting pan soaking in water to draw the salt out. By the time they swelled to a half inch thick, they would be ready to broil to make baccala. This was Flora’s first task--she saw they were ready and so she got rid of the water and put them in the broiler. At the same time, she put in the spots of black cod for the antipasto.

The calamari was already made, and no one but mum touched the eel. Almost no one but mum and dad ate it, either, but she always made it. The cod dipped in batter and fried was served cold, so it was also done and in the refrigerator upstairs. There was cod baking in the oven, some in red and some in white sauce. More cod would be fried in bread crumbs and herbs, and this would be served hot. Flora set about cutting the cauliflower which would also be fried in bread crumbs. So would the smelts, the smallest and tastiest of the fish. Mum checked the sauce for the spaghetti--it was almost done, and ready to be flavored with tuna instead of meat.

By the time Flora went back upstairs to see to the relish trays, the kids were in the living room with dad. He had the record player on, playing a Sousa march which was his favorite music, and he was holding Kathy while dancing a little dance. As Flora got closer she saw that he had a red cherry wrapped behind each ear by its stem. This man who was so modest and dignified, and except for his occasional flares of rapid and seemingly angry speech, so quiet, was showing a side of himself to his grandchildren that even Flora had forgotten.

Billy sat in his grandfather’s chair, trying to keep his grandfather’s curved stem pipe in his mouth while laughing. Kathy was ecstatic. Flora checked herself from worrying about Billy choking and Kathy becoming overexcited and unmanageable. It was Christmas, after all. She watched for a moment from the dining room and then went into the small kitchen and turned on the bright florescent light.

When the front door opened she thought it might be Walt but then remembered that he always rang the doorbell first before walking in. It was Carl, who bounded upstairs to wash up.

As Flora washed the vegetables and the fruit, she heard the marches stop and the radio go on. Perry Como was singing “The First Noel.” Mum and dad didn’t have a television set yet, though mum was talking about getting one. At the Gelfos last night she had seen “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a new opera by Menotti written especially for NBC television. “Ah, Flor, so beautiful!” But of course she talked about getting the TV so the grandchildren could watch.

Then she heard Frank Sinatra singing “White Christmas.” So many Italians on the radio, and now on television. Even some songs in Italian, like that Julius LaRosa song that mum sang with Billy on her knee. Or Rosemary Clooney--she had a big hit with “Come on a My House” which wasn’t in Italian but she used an Italian accent. And she wasn't Italian either but at least she was Catholic. Now that Flora knew neighbors who weren’t Italian or even Catholic, and some of the couples from Singer’s, she was more aware of how their close world was getting to be part of the bigger one, even as more of them were moving away from it.

Billy wandered into the kitchen just as Carl came downstairs. Carl ruffled his hair as Billy looked up at him. Uncle Carl was the tallest man Billy knew. He watched in awe as Carl filled a tumbler full of water from the sink and drank it down without stopping. Then Carl showed mummy the elastic band pup pup made for his glasses so they wouldn’t fall off when he played basketball. Billy wanted to ask Uncle Carl if he was going to play the piano, but his mother and his uncle were talking and he knew he shouldn’t interrupt. Flora saw Billy standing in the kitchen doorway looking doleful and suggested that he go downstairs to help grandma.

That was a good idea so he headed that way--”Don’t run down the stairs!”--mummy called after him. “I won’t!” he cried. The steps down to grandma’s cellar were a little big and hard anyway so he took them one foot at a time until he was almost at the end, then he hopped the last two steps and down to the floor. On the way down he saw the green bottles of Seven Up lined up along the dark wall next to the crooked stairs.

“Billy boy! You come help grandma?” He said yes but there was nothing to do but watch. He wondered at how this dough became the ravioli he would eat tomorrow, so he watched carefully. But it took too long and he got restless.

“Be careful, no touch the stove or oven,” she warned him. “Very hot. Burn.” He looked at the big black and white ovens and walked carefully by them. He climbed up the big step to the part of the cellar where the furnace was, and even though it was pretty dark in there he could see the cubes of black coal, with little gleaming spots coming from some of the top ones. He hopped right back down again and went to look in the part on the other side of the big center room, which was where the lawn mower and other tools were, and the door to the outside and the cement steps up to the little backyard and the long garden. It was too cold to go out without a coat, and the door was shut tight.

Billy came back into the center room and looked up at the big cabinets that held row after row of big jars. Grandma put stuff in the jars and kept them there, so she wouldn’t have to go to the store all the time. That’s what mummy said. He couldn’t see what was in the jars and they scared him a little.

“So you watch Christmas story on television?” she asked him. “With Baby Jesus, and Wise Men sing to him?”

Billy shrugged.

“No? You no remember? Last night? Maybe was on too late for you, huh?”

“I remember--a little bit.”

“So, you see, yes? Beautiful sing. What else you see? You see Santa Claus?”

“Yes. On Howdy Doody.”

“ Oh, boy! You see Santa Claus on Howdy Doody?”

Billy nodded and told grandma the story. “Howdy and Buffalo Bob and Clarabell went in a rocket ship to Santa’s workshop, but there was a bad guy--Ugly Sam--and he had Santa tied up.”

“Oh! No.”

“But he didn’t know it was Santa. He thought it was the Bearded Bandit. But it was really Santa. And Clarabell fell down and hit the Jack in the Box, and Howdy showed Ugly Sam that it was really Santa and he untied him.”

“So Santa okay now?”


“You think he come tonight?”

Billy was startled. Wasn’t he supposed to come tonight?

“I think he come tonight,” grandma said as she cut more dough with the little roller she had. “Bring presents to good girl and boy. You been good boy this year? Listen to your mother?”

“Yes, I guess,” Billy said, but he wasn’t sure what being good meant. Did it mean all the time? He wasn’t good all the time.

“Sure you good boy,” grandma said. “I know. Santa Claus gonna come.”

Even in the basement they could hear the doorbell ring.

“Who do you think is?” grandma asked. “Go see.” She wiped her hands on her white apron. “I come, too. Pretty soon we eat. You hungry?”

Billy shook his head up and down and made his eyes big. Grandma laughed.

When Billy got upstairs, daddy was in the kitchen with mummy, but when he saw grandma coming he went into the living room. Billy followed him. Daddy said hello to pup up and got the newspaper and sat in pup pup’s chair to read it. Billy went and sat on the couch with pup pup and Kathy. Kathy was sleeping. He and pup pup talked quietly about what to leave for Santa that night. Pup pup said if he left a cup of cocoa and some cookies, Santa would be grateful because he had a hard night going around to all the houses on his sleigh and going down chimneys and back up again. Billy thought it was a good idea and went to tell mummy.

Flora was setting the table and smiled when Billy asked her if they could do what pup pup said. “Yes, that’s what we used to do,” she said. “Although I’m not sure Santa likes cocoa anymore.” When she said that grandma laughed. She was putting dishes of food on the table.

“Is it time now?” Billy asked.

“Yes, I think it is,” Flora said. She saw that Billy was already standing in front of the china cabinet and looking inside. She opened the door for him and he reached in and took the small silver bell. He stood by the table and rang it, back and forth, back and forth. It was his job.

Flora put the bell back in the cabinet as Walt came in from the living room, followed by her father who was carrying Kathy, now awake. Billy found his place at the table. He was left-handed so he sat at the far left side, nearest his grandfather. His grandmother sat on the opposite end. Walt sat next to Billy, then Carl. Flora sat on the other side, nearest the kitchen, with Kathy in the high chair next to her. Carl said grace and the meal began.

Pup-up and daddy drank red wine out of little glasses. Billy had the same kind of glass but he drank 7 Up. Plates and bowls began to circulate, but Billy didn’t eat much of what was in them. Grandma had made him a special napkin to wear, with two strings that tied around his neck. Now she brought the big bowl of spaghetti and he ate plenty of that. He was still eating spaghetti when the plates of different kinds of fish were passed around. He liked the kind that was in the spaghetti sauce, although that wasn’t as good as meatballs. He didn’t like what was in the other kinds of sauce, but he ate some of the cold fish and especially the fried fish that tasted like the fish sandwiches daddy brought home sometimes on Fridays. The kind he liked best were the little fish, so mummy cut them up and took out the bones.

Daddy didn’t eat much fish either, not even as much as he did. The others teased him.

“Come on, Walt,” grandma said. “Why you no like?”

“That’s squid, mum,” he said.

“He doesn’t even eat fish usually,” Flora explained, then said to Walt, “It’s mostly breading inside with some spices, it's in tomato sauce. It doesn’t taste like fish. ”

“No, it tastes like squid,” Walt said.

“Hey, Walt, you work today?” pup pup said.

“That’s right, worked in the store.”

“They make you work on Christmas Eve?” grandma said.

“ People shop on Christmas Eve,” Walt said. “So somebody has to work. What am I going to do, say no? Truman fired General MacArthur, mum.”

Flora gave him a funny look. “What’s that have to do with anything?” she said.

“Anybody can get fired, “Walt said.

“T’a me,” was all that grandma said, but they all knew--even Billy--that it was short for poveta me, or ‘poor me.’ “I no think Truman fire you.”

Uncle Carl didn’t talk much, he just ate. Then he got up, said goodbye to everyone and disappeared upstairs.

“Where’d Uncle Carl go?” Billy asked.

“He goes see his friends,” grandma said. “You see him again tomorrow.”

Mummy took Billy’s plate away and grandma asked who wanted Jell-o with whipped cream on top, and Billy said, “Me! Me!”

Billy was still eating his Jell-O when everyone else left the table. Walt took Kathy into the living room while Flora hurried to help her mother with the dishes. Pup pup came back with a deck of Old Maid cards, and he and Billy played for awhile. Then grandma hurried into the living room and turned on the radio. It was seven o’clock and time for the rosary.

The radio was big and brown like the furniture, and the record player was inside it. It had lots of buttons on the front all in a row, and a dial that glowed when the radio was on. There was a kind of ribbon of wood underneath the buttons and he liked to rub his hand along it like it was a real little fence, and his finger rode along the bumps. He wasn’t allowed to touch the buttons because he might change the station, but he was allowed to touch the wood, so he did.

But now everybody had to be quiet for the rosary. All the lights were out in the living room except for the little candle glowing red—it looked like Billy's Seven-Up glass except a little smaller. Grandma sat on the stool near the radio and turned it up loud so they all could hear the priest saying the prayers. The priest said part of every prayer and a lot of people said the second part together. The priest had a funny way of saying Jesus at the end of his part, but he said it the same way every time: Je-ZUZ. Then the people in the church would answer.

After the rosary was over pup pup turned on all the Christmas lights. They were red and green, white and blue. He turned on the ones outside, too. There were three candles in the window that were really electric lights, too.

The big people drank coffee and mummy told Billy it was time to go to United so he should go up to the bathroom now, but he said he didn’t have to go. They got their coats on and Billy kissed grandma and pup pup goodbye. While he stood in the hallway and waited for mummy to finish talking to them, he looked back at the Christmas tree. Tomorrow there would be presents under it for him.

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