I’d never seen my mother stopped in her tracks or speechless. Then the tears came and she bent down and hugged me, lifting me off the checkered linoleum floor and twirled us in circles. My father was right about women, they were unpredictable and they could change their minds faster than a spinning top. She set me down and sprung into action or maybe reaction would better describe how fast she recovered and had the five new guests seated and served, and even blessed with an abbreviated prayer. Lucky Joe found the lutefisk; dried cod fillets brought to near life by a lye bath, and boiled to the consistency of Jell-O to be quite agreeable, even tastier than the netted sturgeon he routinely hauled from the muddy Missouri. The boys stuck to the Swedish menu. Conversations never lapsed as the ever-urbane Uncle Herman regaled the new ears with tales of his wife’s ancestor’s voyage on the Mayflower and a story filled with personal details about Teddy Roosevelt’s victorious charge up San Juan’s Hill. He paused only once to light a cigar that thereafter rested between his fingers but for an occasional puff at a point in a story where a semi colon might be appropriate. My mother surveyed the scene approvingly, although perhaps aided by Mr. David’s wine as evidenced by checks blushed like a Raggedy Anne doll. She opened the dining room curtains affording a delightful view of floating snow the size of cotton balls. There never was a Christmas Eve where time passed so unnoticed or pleasantly. Uncle Herman’s cigar was but a mere stub and he slowed in his speech when my father stood, a sure sign that a departure of someone would be eminent.
I hadn’t noticed when our guests had arrived that Lucky Joe had carried in a brown paper bag, soggy but intact. He lifted it to his lap and softly announced that they brought a few unworthy gifts for his hosts. His nephews delivered a small package wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper to our family members. No one spoke although O Little Town of Bethlehem played on the AM radio in the kitchen and Uncle Herman, head nodded to his chest, gave an occasional snort as a prelude to a symphony of snoring.
I accepted my small package, squeezed it, sniffed at the newspaper, and gave it a shake. It rattled. I wondered if Lucky Joe was savvy to my mother’s tricks. I tore into the paper and it revealed Lucky Joe’s snake tail, the lucky one with 13 rows of rattles.
Mike had completed his inspection, lift, view, sniff, squeeze, and open. Lucky Joe’s foot, the jackrabbit’s furry foot, that he claimed gave special powers to the owner. A charm Mike would later claim cast a magical spell over Valerie.
My father discovered a cigar packaged in a fine metal tube. He unscrewed the top and breathed in the aroma.
My mother was still assessing her gift, likely the only one she’d not had a sneak preview of in the last three decades. “Oh, good gravy, Joe, you shouldn’t have.” Her eyes lit with delight when she held a gold cross necklace that sparkled in the candlelight. I’d seen the same at Woolworth’s and knew it must have cost the entire Christmas budget.
“Well boys, can you help me with the gifts for our guests?” In an act of generosity that could have caused a coronary for my father who stood and led us to the broom closet where he’d secreted our gifts from the earlier shopping spree. He handed me the gift wrapped Mr. Potato Head and the fountain pen. Mike took my mother’s gift that would fit Rhonda and we both watched while my father plucked the bow from her package and attached it to grandma’s ivory handled cane that had rested in the closet since her death. He took the silver Zippo lighter with the U. S. Army insignia from his pants pocket, rolled it in some red sparkly gift-wrap and set out down the hall.
I believe the only disappointment was when little Lukey opened the fountain pen. I tried to ease the pain by slipping a platoon of green plastic army men into his coat pocket before they departed.
All great meals need to end with a sweet dessert. Every one of our Christmas Eve meals ends with a birthday cake with a single candle. A few years back, Mom explained to me that one thousand nine hundred and fifty-six candles would likely set the house on fire. She brought the chocolate cake with its candle and sang Happy Birthday as she set the pan on the dining room table. Lucky Joe stood and harmonized with her. Joe’s brother, Rhonda, the boys, Lukey and Jimmy, joined in the choir as soon we all did. Up until then I’d always viewed the Christmas holidays as a break from school and learning; this was the year that my mother taught me that Christmas was not a day in my life, Christmas is a way of life.