This is a fiction piece I wrote several years ago as part of a larger project. I thought I’d post it now for the holidays. It’s based on memories, not only mine but those of my Aunt Toni (who provided details about food and food preparation, among other elements) and of others in my family—--my sister Kathy and cousin Bobby in particular. I’ve changed some names, but kept others. I found that in fictionalizing real events and people, that I would sometimes forget what the names I invented referred to. So in early stages of composition I kept the actual names, even if the people and places became substantially more invented. I hope no one who has these names feels insulted. If this ever goes to print, I’ll change more names.
I expect this will be of interest chiefly to members of my extended family, though the historical detail of life in western Pennsylvania in 1951 is as accurate as I could make it. So it is my gift, especially to my extended family, for Christmas 2002. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to them, and to everyone.
Flora had some last minute shopping to do before going to Arnwood to help Mum with Christmas Eve cooking, so Walt came home for a few minutes in the afternoon to pick them up. He was working at the store on Main Street today. She told Billy to call and remind him, and watched as Billy asked the operator for 409, which was the Singer store number. He knew that number and their home number (5329-M). She noticed again that when he put the heavy black phone receiver to his left ear he immediately switched it to his right. She was going to have to ask Dr. Spino about this.
Doris who answered the phone told Billy that Walt was already on his way. Billy went to the picture window to watch for the Singer sewing machine truck. Sometimes he could spot it at the bottom of the hill, at the corner where they got the green city bus to go into town, or the orange bus that took them to Arnwood.
The window was ringed with the new Christmas bubble lights that Walt bought and that Billy and Kathy would sit and watch. Kathy would soon tire of it, since she was not quite two years old, but Billy could sit there watching for a long time. The lights came on when Walt plugged them in, but it took awhile for them to warm up so that the bubbles started moving, and that's what the kids waited for. There were green, red, yellow, blue and orange lights, and they began bubbling at different times, so the kids had a good time watching them.
She was getting Kathy into a dress when Billy shouted that daddy was home. Soon she heard the front door open and Walt came into the bedroom. She told him they would be just a few minutes. He took off his coat but didn't hang it in the closet. He draped it over the back of the couch in the living room and sat down in the leather chair. He was wearing his good brown suit today because he was working the floor at the store, and he had on a brown tie only because Flora had prevented him from wearing a blue one. His color blindness was only a problem with dark shades, she noticed. He seemed to be in a good mood, but as soon as he got home he always started feeling tired.
Flora succeeded in getting Kathy's dress, white socks and white shoes on her before she started fussing, but getting her arms into her winter coat was a struggle. Kathy had worn braces on her legs for a very short time, but when she started walking it was clear that she didn't need them and her legs were healthy and strong. So already this was a happy Christmas.
Flora got Billy into his coat and hat and gloves, and Walt carried Kathy down to the truck. They didn't have real steps yet, just piles of big rocks that were flat but ridged, and some moved a little when stepped on. Walt and his brothers and one of the neighbors had built the walk last summer, using rocks the bulldozer had scooped along the hill from the street to just beside the house. Someday this would be their driveway, though now it was just dirt on a hard rocky surface. There was a little snow on the ground, but Walt had brushed most of it off the walk with an old broom this morning, and no more had fallen since.
Flora and Billy went around to the passenger side of the gray panel truck with the red Singer insignia on the side. Billy climbed in first, crawling over the seat and down between the two front seats into the back of the truck, where he sprawled on some old blankets. Then Flora stepped up and sat down, while Walt came around and then handed Kathy to her.
The road down the hill passed bunches of trees and a scattering of houses, then the gas station and the Hudson-Nash showroom, until they came to the corner of Hamilton Street, where the many houses were close together and the city of Greenbriar really began. The first few blocks of West Newton Street past the Hamilton corner, still lined with trees but now just a stately single column of them, was a mix of some big stone houses and other smaller wood frame ones, all of them built many years before the war. Then West Newton merged with Pittsburgh Street at the top of the hill that led deeply down and then sharply up like a roller coaster dip, cresting at Main Street, before another steep drop on the other side.
There were fewer trees as they started down the hill but they were very tall and pretty. Rich looking, Flora thought. She noticed a little snow on the large rolling lawns in front of the big stone buildings, formerly the mansions of the town's rich coal barons before they left town altogether, now converted to funeral parlors and the headquarters of an insurance company. There wasn't much snow, but enough to ensure this would be a white Christmas.
When Billy saw the golden court house dome at the top of the hill he knelt on the hump between the built-in seats to look at the gray stone courthouse itself, the largest building he had seen so far in his five and a half years.
Just before Main Street, Walt pulled a little ways into an alley to let them out. Once she and Kathy were down, Billy climbed out and watched the truck continue down the alley.
"Where's daddy going?" he asked.
"Just back to the Singer store," Flora answered. "We'll see him there in a little while. We're going to Royers now. Don't you want to see the flying bottle?"
For a moment he didn't know what she meant but the idea urged him forward with her. Kathy wanted down from her arms, and so their progress was slowed by Kathy's walk. Now Billy was impatient and skipped ahead. Fortunately, there was a side door to the store and she guided them inside.
Royers was the smallest and smartest and most expensive of the Main Street department stores, so Flora only bought there what she couldn't find elsewhere. She'd seen a cashmere scarf she liked on a previous visit and had decided to buy it for her brother Carl. She guided her children to the correct counter and made the purchase. Billy, who was looking at the lit glass cases and holding onto his sister's hand, heard the sound and remembered, and quickly looked up.
He saw the clerk wrap the sales slip and its carbon copy with a rubber band and put it in a dull gold colored metal cylinder. Then he opened a lid on a pipe the same color that went up the wall and across the ceiling. As soon as the lid was opened, the cylinder was immediately sucked up and sent whooshing and clattering through the pipe. "The flying bottle!" Billy cried. Flora smiled as Billy watched for the sales slip to come back through the pneumatic tube and clunk to a stop.
Back outside, they walked past several small shops--Nancy's, the La Rose Shop, Robertsons-- and the big Joe Workman store. Billy knew which one was Nancy's by its orange facade, because of the radio commercial that fascinated him: several men, singing "That's Nancy, with the orange face," slightly off-key.
Billy asked where they were going next and Flora told him, "Bon Ton's. Do you know where it is?" Billy looked past the McCory's five and ten (almost as big as Murphy's across the street)and the Masons building, and saw the big sign that hung over the sidewalk, with a clock in the first O and a temperature gauge in the second. "Right there!" he cried, pointing up at the sign. Billy knew the sign, a conspicuous landmark on Main Street, but he could also read it. He didn't quite know how to read, Flora had 33decided. He knew his letters, and he knew certain familiar words, like Bon Ton and Singer, but she didn't think he had put the two skills together yet. But he was close, and he wouldn't start school until next fall.
Flora thought about sending him to kindergarten, but there was only one nearby, and she didn't know anyone who sent their child there. Since Billy seemed to be learning on his own, and also since he still got upset and sometimes uncontrollable in a crowd of children--who could forget the monumental tantrums he threw at his surprise birthday party in Youngwood last year-- she decided against it. It wasn't worth the money. Her mother agreed, as did Doctor Spino, and so did Walt.
By the time they got inside Bon Ton, Kathy was fussing. Royers had been crowded but the Bon Ton was very crowded and loud. There were no rugs on the shiny wood and stone floors, and the ceilings were higher. She promised Billy some ice cream if he would help her with Kathy while she looked at lined leather gloves for dad. She talked with a clerk at the men's gloves counter while Billy stood nearby with Kathy looking at the lights on a Christmas tree, telling her the colors. He would point, say the color, and she would repeat it. Then he pointed and waited. She cried out the names of colors. Flora looked back once in awhile. Kathy seemed to know red but her other choices were guesses, and when she was wrong and Billy laughed, she would repeat the guess to make him laugh again.
But they both soon tired of this game, and Flora hadn't found what she was looking for, at least not at the price she thought reasonable, so they crossed the short side street to Troutman's, the biggest department store in town. She thought about taking them up to the third floor to see Santa, but Kathy had been frightened by the big man in the bright red suit when they were here a few weeks before, so she didn't mention it, and they stayed on the first floor.
While she held Kathy and bought a pair of gloves--they weren't much cheaper or any nicer than at Bon Ton's but she was ready to give up--Billy stood looking through the glass doors across Main Street where he saw the Singer sign. She thought this would entice him, but when she started to move that way he reminded her about the ice cream. She sighed and changed direction, going back out the side door and down some steps to the little diner below street level. She immediately regretted it for it was crowded and so hot that the glass windows were steamed up. But Billy was fascinated with the idea of being below the street and wanted to stay. He was just starting to work up to a tantrum when a booth became available and they all sat down.
Flora was impatient. It was silly promising ice cream when they would all be stuffing themselves for the next couple of weeks, and they would have cookies and candy within all too easy reach most of the time. And it was getting late. Mum would be beside herself trying to get everything done.
She tried to urge Billy along but he was still more interested in looking around and back up at the legs of people walking by on the sidewalk than his dish of melting chocolate ice cream. Fortunately, Kathy was also absorbed in looking around and a few spoonfuls of ice cream seemed enough for her.
At last she got them buttoned up and ready to go out again. They crossed Main Street to the Singer store. As soon as they got inside the door, Kathy ran across the carpeted floor. There weren't many customers and everyone who worked there knew them. Doris made a fuss over Kathy while Billy stood quietly looking around. Walt wasn't out on the floor. He could be downstairs in the shop or more likely in the back with a favored customer, sipping some holiday whiskey. But Doris' loud praise and Kathy's laughter must have alerted him, and he came out. Billy, who had been so eager to come here, hardly moved. Flora exchanged greetings with Ronnie Welsh, who said he and his wife Reenie would drop by, probably on the weekend. This would be the first Christmas season Flora was able to entertain visitors in her new home. Although she and Walt had spent an evening at the homes of a few of his coworkers and their wives, like Ronnie and Reenie, they had not yet hosted any. Now they could.
Flora talked quietly with Walt. He confirmed that he would have to stay to close up, since the manager had the day off and the assistant manager left early. Ronnie, the only other salesman there today, had the longer drive home. She reminded him that they were eating early so that they could go see his family afterwards. She gave him her packages to put in the truck, and gathered her children for the trolley ride to Youngwood.
The trolleys ran on Main Street so they caught one at the corner, and once they were past the last houses a few streets beyond Main, the six mile ride didn't take much longer than by car. From there to Arnwood the trolley ran alongside the railroad tracks, which Billy really liked. He loved trains, and wished aloud that they would see one go by. Flora was just as glad none did, for she was grateful for the quiet. There were enough seats for everyone on the trolley, and it was a quiet ride. Snow streaked the grass and clung especially to the trees higher up the hills they passed. The route itself was very flat. Soon they started passing standing coal cars and box cars that meant they were nearing the rail yards of Arnwood, and soon after, Depot Street.
When the trolley stopped near Depot Street, Billy wanted to stay on long enough to see the conductor take him stool from one end of the trolley car to the other for the return trip, but Flora told him they had to get off now or they would have to go back, and he wouldn't get any of the jumbalones grandma had made this morning. So they got up and walked in the cold and cloudy afternoon across the black coal cinders, onto the short border of grass and then onto the sidewalk, up Depot Street.
* * *
"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 tried to hug him again but he got away.
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!"
"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 and tried to hug him again but he got away and everybody 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 an aquarium with goldfish in it. Mrs. Gelfo wore thick glasses so her eyes were real big, and looked like two brown fishes swimming in an aquarium.
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 he 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.
"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," 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?"
"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."
"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 that 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-pup 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-pup 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.
" 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 but he was allowed to touch the wood, so he did. Sometimes he listened to programs on it, like Fibber, McGee and Molly, and Baby Schnooks. He used to listen to the Lone Ranger and the Jack Benny program but now he could see them on television.
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 on the radio 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 now. 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.
* * *
They rode through the dark to United, along winding roads with rounded hills occasionally outlined in dimly seen snow. Billy watched the roads and tried to recognize where they were going, but apart from the darkness he didn't take this ride enough to remember it. He knew the route to Arnwood pretty well but not this one. When they suddenly slowed down and turned down a road with houses around it he was surprised. When they got out of the car, mummy pointed high behind them. "Look, Billy," she said. "You can see the coke ovens."
"Where? Where?" he cried and then he saw the orange glows in the distance.
"You can see them better on the way home. We'll pass a little closer."
They were parked on the hard black coal dust in front of Uncle Bug's yellow one story wood frame house. But only the Christmas lights were on there. Instead they walked up the dark brick walk to the tall gray wood house where Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe lived with his other grandfather, granpap. Inside were Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella and their daughter, Beverly, who was Billy's age. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella were there, too. They had a baby, a girl, named Carmen. Aunt Beatty had a baby, too, another girl, also named Kathy. Everyone said hello to him, and said how big he was getting.
Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella were the nicest ones, though Aunt Rella talked really loud sometimes. But she laughed a lot, too. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella talked a lot, and so did daddy when he was with big people, but Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe were quiet. They kept their heads down and didn't move them much, they just moved their eyes.
After a little while, Walt took Billy down to the basement where granpap was. Granpap was very glad to see him. He had shiny black and gray hair, and when he smiled Billy saw gaps in his teeth. He looked at Billy a long time, his eyes shining and his face all bright. Then he joked back and forth with Walt while Billy looked around. There wasn't much to see, and the ceiling was even lower than upstairs. Pretty soon they went back up.
The adults sat and stood in the kitchen talking with one another and it was not long before Billy was restless. He sat for awhile by himself in the living room, looking up at the low ceilings. His cousin Beverly didn't talk to him but stayed with her mother and the babies. There was nothing to do and no one to talk to. By now he had to go to the bathroom, but it was a long time before his father would take him out to the outhouse. It was dark and cold and he was a little frightened, but fortunately he only had to do number one.
Daddy said he was old enough to go by himself but he would watch him from the door. He had his coat on but it was still cold. The porch light didn't go the whole way but almost. He opened the door and it was dark and smelly inside. He went as fast as he could. On the way back he could see daddy in the door, looking behind him and then looking out towards him. When he got back inside he noticed the pump that was now inside the house. Grandma in Youngwood had a pump outside in the back, but it was just for watering the garden. Here it was where all the water came from.
The adults were sitting around the kitchen table playing canasta and talking. He watched them for awhile.
"So does Santa know you're living upstairs now?" Uncle Bugs asked him.
Billy wondered that, too. "Yes, he does," Flora said. "We wrote to him, didn't we, Billy? And now we have a real chimney for him to come down."
"Is Father Stephen coming around this year? I mean, the Star Man?" Uncle Bill asked as they played.
"Father Stephen isn't here anymore," Uncle Joe said. "Not for a couple of years. The new one doesn't do it."
"He scared the hell out of me when I was a kid," Uncle Bugs said. "With that big hat and long robe. I never knew the answers, either."
"Well, he shoulda asked you about rabbit hunting, not religion," Uncle Bill said. "You got the candy anyway, didn't you?"
"He scared me, too," Aunt Beatty said, "but still, it was kind of nice. The altar boys carrying that lantern with all the stars, you know, cut out so the light came through."
"Hey, Billy, what does your other grandfather tell you about--whatshername--Befana?"
Billy looked at his mother but she was looking at Uncle Bill.
"Just what are you talking about, Bill?" Aunt Carmella said. "What do you know about Italian things?"
"I work with Italians," he said. "This one guy told me that when he was little his mum and dad used to scare the shit out of him talking about Befana--or something like that. A witch. An old witch who comes down the chimney and leaves sacks of ashes and coal for bad kids."
"That's terrible," Aunt Rella said. "Terrible thing to tell a kid on Christmas."
"So?" Uncle Bill said. "I didn't make it up. This guy told me."
"Well, he must be Sicilian," Flora said, and they all laughed.
Then Billy's grandfather came up from the basement where he stayed most of the time and everyone gathered around the kitchen table, even Beverly. They all had little glasses and drank a toast. Billy's glass had root beer in it. Then a big, very thin white wafer was passed around. Everyone wished each other a merry Christmas as they broke off a little piece of it and ate it. They said it was bread but to Billy it tasted like cardboard.
Then it was time to go. Flora got Kathy from the bed upstairs where she'd been sleeping. Kathy cried a little when Flora got her into her coat, but she fell asleep again as soon as the car started up. Billy was almost asleep himself when he suddenly looked up to see the coke ovens glowing on the mountain. It was like orange fires in caves, but all the same size. He watched until he couldn't see them anymore. He felt himself falling asleep for sure now, but before he did he reminded mummy about the cocoa and cookies for Santa. She said she would remember.
* * *
Billy awoke early the next morning in his own bed in his own room. He wondered if it was too early, but he was awake right away. He had a double bed, his mother had told him, because someday he might have a brother. Kathy had her own room, too, but she slept in a crib that mummy said had been his. Kathy is still a baby, just learning things. He has to help her once in awhile because he is older. She is too little to understand what today is. He is going to go to school after the next summer. He thought about that more and more.
The sun was on the other side of the house, but he could see out his own window that it was definitely light. He got up, opened his door and listened. Everybody else was still asleep. He went into the hall and towards the light coming through the picture window into the living room. He saw the tree in the corner, the same as yesterday. And he saw what was different: the packages under the tree.
His eyes immediately went to something that wasn't wrapped. That meant it was from Santa Claus, mummy told him. It was large, a kind of box, yellow, with blue and red lettering. He knelt down to touch it. The surface was slightly rough. He opened the top. Inside the cover had a red and white stripped picture of Howdy Doody, and then he saw what it was: a phonograph. A Howdy Doody Phono-Doodle.
He ran to get his records. His big record, Tubby the Tuba, was already scratched and worn from use. He had other little records, some bought for him but most that used to be mummy's and she gave him or let him play. But when he got them he couldn't play them. Everybody else was still asleep.
He stood up, not knowing what to do. It was then that he saw it on the coffee table: an empty cup with a brown ring around the inside, and a saucer with a little bit of a cookie left on it.
Flora heard Billy in the living room, and not wanting to miss his discovery of his presents, she poked Walt once and got up. To her surprise, he started getting up, too.
As she wrapped the robe around her she glanced out the picture window. It looked cold, but there weren't as many clouds as yesterday. It was going to be a sunny Christmas.
As Billy found more toys--a western gun and holster set, a cowboy hat and a tin painted gas station--he turned around to see his mummy and daddy in their robes sitting down on the sofa smiling at him.
After he found all his presents from Santa Claus he opened the packages from mummy and daddy, and the ones that Ant Toni had sent. They were mostly all clothes. He went through them fast but mummy wanted to see everything. Then she went into the kitchen to make coffee while daddy showed him how to work the phonograph.
Pretty soon he was playing a new little record, all red, of Gene Autry singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He wanted to play more but mummy said it was time to eat breakfast and get ready for church.
There were mostly big people in church, and they stood and knelt and sat at different times, all together. Billy had been to church before but he was more interested today because he understood that the church they went to was downstairs from the school where he would be going. Sometimes Billy could see the priest and the altar boys and sometimes he couldn't. But he could always see the six candles lit above the altar, and he heard the organist singing. She sang in Latin. He didn't understand her, but as the Mass went on and on, he began to make up a story to the way the words sounded. It was about a mother telling her boy to do something. First she called him--
I thought I told you, she said
qui tolis pecatta mundi
and the boy answers no--maybe because he didn't hear her:
me say ray ray no bis
They went from church down to Youngwood in the Singer truck. The sun glinted off the snow, though there were patches of brown peeking through. Flora listened as the radio in the truck said there was more snow was on the way, maybe even tonight. She would keep an eye on the weather and try to get them home before it snowed.
The big meal on Christmas day was just after noon. Although Christmas Eve was more elaborate, there was still plenty to do for Christmas Day, especially since mum saved the best desserts for then. They would be eating all day, but first everything had to be made ready.
But mum and dad had presents for the kids, and they stopped their preparations to watch him. Billy was so completely amazed by the Hopalong Cassidy cowboy outfit mum and dad gave him. There were pictures of Hopalong Cassidy on the western style shirt, and a picture of him on his horse with a lariat that spelled out Hoppalong Cassidy on the chap-style pants. They even got him a pair of black cowboy boots to go with it. Knowing this, Flora had brought along his cowboy hat and guns and holster set. Billy ran upstairs to change out of his church clothes and into the cowboy suit.
When he came downstairs, his grandfather greeted him. "Hey! It's Hopalong Que-ce-dice!" Everybody laughed, as Billy drew his guns.
Her grandmother held Kathy, who gripped her new stuffed doggie and kicked her legs in excitement. She wriggled until she got down, and pup pup got his camera. Walt pulled the piano bench in front of the Christmas tree. Billy sat down with Kathy on his lap. Billy held her with one hand, and pointed a gun at the camera with the other.
Mum asked her about the morning. Flora told her about the phonograph. "He knows the names of all my records," she said, explaining why she got it for him. "Even the instrumentals. I don't know how."
Carl came downstairs and after the kids had opened all their presents, Billy asked if he was going to play the piano. So he sat down and played some Christmas carols. His hands and long fingers moved fast across the keys. Somehow they were making the music he heard but he couldn't keep up with Uncle Carl's hands. Sometimes it looked like the keys were still moving by themselves after Uncle Carl's fingers were already gone.
But when Carl stopped playing there was still plenty of time until dinner. To keep the children occupied and perhaps even calm them down a little, their grandfather bundled them up and took them for a walk down to the railroad tracks. They went slow because of Kathy. Pup- pup kept hold of her hand so she couldn't try to run after Billy, but pup up didn't want him to run too far ahead either, so he kept circling back. That was until they got to the end of the street, past where Timmy and Mary Ann lived. Then pup pup said Billy had to hold his other hand because they were crossing over the railroad tracks.
Then they got to the trolley tracks but to Billy's amazement they didn't turn back. They were going on to the stone bridge over the little creek. They stood on the bridge and Billy looked down, but mostly he looked beyond. On the other side of the bridge there was only the road disappearing into the trees. There was heavy brush there. In the summer when he stayed over at grandma's he could hear strange sounds that grandma said were frogs. Those frogs lived in the brush there, pup pup said. Billy looked at it, trying to imagine what wild animals might be in there and in the woods beyond. This was as close as he had been.
As they walked back to the house Billy wondered if they would go past it, and up the street to where the drug store and the other ice cream places were. Pup-pup took them there in the summer, when his cousin Dicky was here. But this time when they got to the house they went inside.
Dinner began with grandma's soup, the only kind of soup she ever served. Most people called it wedding soup, but hers was a little different, and it was one of those things she never gave a completely accurate recipe for, Flora reflected. She knew it had egg, broccoli and little meat balls, but Flora never attempted to make it herself. Her mother was just too vague about how it was done.
Then came the homemade ravioli with homemade sauce. Some were filled with cheese, others with meat. Billy cheerfully had several helpings at the smiling insistence of his grandmother. Anything less than several helpings she treated as an insult. Plates of meat balls and roast beef in the same meat sauce were passed around and then kept on the table. Another plate of meat balls without sauce made the rounds.
Then the roast chicken, roast potatoes and carrots. Side dishes appeared. Of these, Billy liked the breaded veal cutlets the best. He also liked salad, which he especially enjoyed with his chicken and cutlets. He didn't eat much of the cooked vegetables, Flora noticed.
Then came the coffee and the sponge cake, the Christmas pannettone, a yeasty, egg cake that Flora's mother still made herself. There were piles of pizelles, which they had spent hours that morning making downstairs with two large black pizelle irons on the burners of the stove. There were single pizzelles, some brownish, some light and crumbly. Some had an almond taste, some tasted of vanilla, and some of anise. Some were made into sandwiches with a fig paste between two pizelles.
But now specialty cookies could be more easily bought in nearby stores, some baked in Pittsburgh or closer, and some imported from Italy. The hard and the soft biscotti were easy to find, and assortments of small cookies that appeared at various times of the year. But the imported cantuccini sapori-- the chocolate covered cookie with hazlenuts inside--and the torrone--nougat candy in flavors of vanilla, lemon and orange--were only for Christmas.
And of course, the jello. Even after all that food, Mum was still insulted if you didn't eat the Jell-O.
All day the cookies and candies stayed on the dining room table. Flora put some of her cookie out, too--the snicker doodles, the Christmas sugar cookies in different shapes decorated with icings with different food coloring. Ant was even represented with the nut roll she'd made and sent through the mail.
Late in the afternoon and in the evening they would crack walnuts and hazelnuts. There was always fruit--pears, apples, oranges and tangerines. Billy liked the tangerines best, and then the pears. The relish tray also reappeared, with a special addition next to the celery: fresh anise, which looked just like celery but had its own particular flavor. Billy tried it, and seemed to like it.
He also liked to look at the pictures on the little torrone boxes, of the hand colored cameos of women with the blue ribbons in their hair and men with red vests and bow tie, and the scenes on the other side, of statues and buildings against white clouds and blue sky, or a scene Billy said was of pirates, but that was because the man wore an open blue shirt and white pants with high black boots that Billy only knew from pirate tales on TV.
After dinner, as dad and Walt dozed in the living room and Kathy had her nap while Flora and mum cleaned up, Billy was sent off to the movies with two neighbor kids, Timmy and Mary Ann. Pup pup gave him a nickel for his admission, and he gave nickels to Timmy and Mary Ann for taking him. They walked up the street, and down to where Billy had never been except to go to the movies, though it wasn't far to walk.
"What they see today?" mum asked as they washed and dried the dishes.
"Cinderella," Flora said. " The Walt Disney cartoon."
"Yes, I hear about it," mum said. "suppose to be good. Lots music."
"Yes, that 'Bibbety Boppity Boo' song is in it. I hope they don't make it too scary. When Billy saw "Sleeping Beauty" the witch and her poisoned apple really scared him. That's when he started imagining the mirror upstairs was a monster's face floating around the room."
When Billy got home from the movies, his eyes full of color and head full of songs, everybody was in the dining room playing a game. He thought it was cards but it wasn't. Everybody had a cardboard square.
"It's called Tombala," mummy explained. "It's like bingo. You've never seen it before--or you don't remember seeing it--because we only play it on Christmas."
Kathy was sitting on mummy's lap watching but then she tried to get down. Mummy held her and began to bounce her up and down and sang to her:
How much is that doggie in the window
The one with the scraggily tail?
How much is that doggie in the window
I do hope that doggie's for sale.
Kathy laughed. When mummy stopped to play the game Billy began singing, imitating Jimmy Durante shaking his head and singing Inka Dinka Do. Everybody in the family liked Jimmy Durante. Billy watched him every time he was on Colgate Comedy Hour (though he usually hoped for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.) Jimmy Durante always did a big number at the end with his friend Eddie who wore a big top hat, when they marched all around the stage, waving their hats. Then at the very end Jimmy put on his rain coat and hat and said, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are," and walked away through pools of light. Billy wondered if he ever would say who Mrs. Calabash was. He didn't want to miss that.
When they laughed he tried to roll his eyes all around like Eddie Cantor. Kathy looked at him for awhile but turned away. He started singing to her like Vaughn Monroe. He did it by putting his tongue at the roof of his mouth way in back. "Silly Billy," mummy said, smiling.
They were all waiting for Aunt Toni to call from Maryland, so when the phone rang the game stopped and pup pup turned down the radio. Everybody took turns talking to Ant Toni, though not for very long because it was long distance and cost a lot of money. Billy tried to imagine how far away Maryland was. He got a turn to talk to Aunt Toni and to Dickie. He told Dickie about going down past the railroad tracks and Dickie said he wanted to do that when they came up in the summer. They were just getting used to talking on the telephone when Billy had to get off.
It was getting dark when they were all in the living room. First Billy bounced on pup pups knee, pretending he was Hopalong Que ce dice going after bad guys. Grandma had Kathy on her lap, playing patty-cake. Then they switched, and Billy and grandma sang:
ting a ting un violino
pling a pling un mandolino
toot toot toot la saxaphona
tippety tippety top!
But when Billy played the toy horn he got for Christmas, daddy told him to stop. "That's enough now," he said. But Billy looked around and nobody else got mad, so he stopped for awhile and then started playing it again. Nothing happened so he kept playing, and this time daddy really yelled. "I told you stop that now!" Billy started to cry. His father got even more mad. "Stop that or I'll give you something to cry about!" he shouted.
Billy ran upstairs and lay down on the bed in the middle room and cried. Later he went back downstairs and stood out in the hall. Grandma saw him and told him he could go sit at the desk if he wanted, and later pup pup would get out the viewmaster. He nodded solemnly and went to the desk next to the living room windows. He turned on the desk lamp. The desk was very shiny and clean, not like the rough, banged up desk at home. He usually wasn't allowed to sit there or ever to play there because it was good furniture. But he could sometimes if he was careful. Grandma gave him some paper and a pencil and he sat drawing for awhile. He drew a man standing on the ground, with the sun above him, and a house behind him. He drew a tree and a bird in it. Trees were where birds live. Maybe the bird was a robin. They were called robin red-breast in the Book House books, but really they were orange.
Then pup pup got out the viewmaster. It was black and heavy, but not too heavy for Billy to hold up to his face by himself. Pup pup put one of the white flat circles into it and Billy put his eyes to the two places to look, and when his eyes got used to it he could see a color picture of mountains. He pushed the clicker and another picture came on.
By the time grandma's rosary came on the radio, Billy was very tired. When it was over, he lay down on the sofa. Just then the doorbell rang, and a big man in black came in. It took a minute for him to recognize Father Dunstan.
"Flora, Merry Christmas," he said. "I wasn't sure you'd still be here, but I was up at Holy Cross today--one of their priests went home to see his parents and I was filling in. So I thought I'd stop, but I got held up until now. How's Walt? How are the children?"
They talked some more and then suddenly Father Dunstan was in the living room. He looked huge standing above him. Billy didn't know what to say, so he answered Father Dunstan's questions very quietly. He was just starting to get interested when he felt a big hand on his head and saw that Father Dunstan was saying a prayer and making the sign of the cross over him with his other hand. Then he squeezed his shoulder hard, and he was gone, into the dining room.
Billy dozed until mummy told him quietly they were going home and to get his coat on. Daddy had already put all his presents in the truck. He kissed grandma and pup pup goodbye and said thank you. They hugged him and said Merry Christmas once more.
The truck was cold but he could lie down, and the thrum of the engine put him to sleep again. He awoke once and for a second he didn't know where he was. He was confused and a little mad but then he realized he was on his way home, the day was over and nothing more would happen, except his mother would put him into bed and kiss him goodnight, and he would be safe.