It’s not solely because I’m a curmudgeon (although I often fit that jacket) but I’m always happy when Christmas is over and done with.
See, my birth family went through a traumatic break-up in the early ’70’s. The first Christmas Eve we had with certain members missing was as big a drag as I’d ever experienced in the few short years I’d been alive to that point.
And, no, it wasn’t my parents who split up. They got married when Ma was 16 and Dad, 18. They actually had to run away to Indiana to get married because Ma (well, my future Ma) was underaged under Illinois law. M & D crossed the state line with her eldest sibling, Uncle Louie, and his wife, Aunt Vera. Louie and Vera signed for them as adults. By the way, Ma told me one time that as the four of them piled back into the car outside the Justice of the Peace’s place, Aunt Vera said to her, “You know, you can’t sleep with Joe. You haven’t been married in church yet.”
Such a different age! Ma took Vera’s words to heart and did not sleep with Dad until their union was indeed blessed by a priest a few, presumably endless, weeks later
Aunt Vera was of Polish descent, as was my Daddy-o, as was Uncle Joey’s wife Pauline, as was Aunt Theresa’s husband Dick. Uncle Tony married an Italian gal, and she was a hoot and a holler. She chain-smoked, drank gin, played cards, and had a guffaw that would reverberate through the house. Uncle Johnnie married a gal of Scandinavian extraction which, to me, was as exotic as if she’d been Maori.
Weird, though, isn’t it? That of all Grandpa Vince and Grandma Anna’s six kids, four of them married Poles. But that really wasn’t so bizarre in pre-war Chicago. Both the second generation Italians and Poles by and large left their neighborhoods just west and south of the Loop, where the first wave of immigrants from those respective countries had settled. The second generation kids wanted to get away from the tenements and narrow streets and native languages of their youth and start up new, more American, lives in brand new bungaloes on the edge of the city. So they moved to Chicago’s northwest side. The new Italian and Polish neighborhoods abutted each other and that second generation wasn’t so exclusionary as their parents so tons of them fell in love with each other.
But back to my family’s break-up. As I’ve indicated, it wasn’t Ma and Dad — Sue and Joe — who split. Hell no. They stuck together through thin and thin (no typo there). Ma was so young when she got married that plenty of people told her the marriage would never last. Ma, being one of the hardest-headed people I’ve ever known, a real testa dura, took that as a challenge, even a dare, and stuck it out with Dad.
He never said much to us kids, other than to yell at us, and his siblings were similarly icy and aloof. His side of the family, frankly, scared me. Ma’s side, on the other hand, were a bunch of laughing, crying, hugging, fun-lovers. When I went in for my tonsillectomy at the age of four, I told the nurses that my mother and I were Italian, but my father and sisters and brother were Polish. The nurses exchanged smirks, which I wasn’t able to grasp until I was in my teens.
Anyway, in 1979 when I went through my first major heartbreak, I collapsed on the front stoop in tears one night. I could hear Ma whispering, loudly, to Dad, “Joe! Go out there and help him! He needs you!” And after a few long moments Dad came out and sat near-ish me, the look on his face the same, I supposed, as if he were sitting near-ish a dog foaming at the mouth.
“Dad,” I said after an uncomfortable silence between us, “tell me how you met Ma.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, as pained as if I’d asked him what his favorite sex position was with her.
“No, really. Tell me.”
After a little more prodding, he opened up, the first and only time he and I ever really conversed.
“I was over to Hansen Park,” he said. “The American Legion girls were playing softball. They were called the Orioles. I saw your mother playing short-centerfield. She had black, curly hair. I took one look at her and said, ‘I’m gonna marry that girl!'”
With that I fell into a loud, tear-gushing cry.
“What’s the matter?” Dad said. “Did I say somethin’ wrong?”
He hadn’t, of course. In fewer than fifty words, he’d told me a whole, wonderful story.
What I came to realize since then is he was head-over heels in love with Ma and she was very eager to get away from an abusive home. Between his infatuation and her determination to prove all the nay-sayers wrong, they found ways to stay married until he died in 1995. Ma spent the rest of her life trying to tell me how heroic she was to stay married to Dad.
“Ma,” I’d say, for the thousandth time, “I don’t wanna hear it.”
But, again, she was a testa dura, and she’d go on reciting chapter and verse about how she bravely stuck it all out with Dad.
My family’s break-up came about because my sister, already married with five kids, had taken up with another man. As if that wasn’t bad enough for Ma and Dad to swallow, the other man was…, gasp! — black.
Suddenly, Dad became an orator. He expounded at length and at the drop of a hat about the failures and weaknesses of black men. He insisted my sister be written out of his will. From the moment he learned of my sister’s dalliance, he began tumbling, for the rest of his life, into a deep, dark depression.
Me? I was depressed because my sister and her kids weren’t at that first Christmas Eve after the news broke.
It has become one of those youthful memories that won’t go away even as I’ve become an aging curmudgeon.