The Christmas Drink

Every Christmas Eve, my Polish grandmother would walk out to the barn in mid morning and fetch a handful of straw to put under the tablecloth for good luck. With that, Babcia, as we called her, tied on her flower-print apron and began preparing a meatless supper of twelve courses including cheese-filled pierogi, beet barszcz, mushrooms, and her special yeast coffee cake. In the evening, the family stopped by in shifts on their way to Midnight Mass. Babcia gave each of her children and grandchildren a plate of food and a piece of opłatek, a thin wheat wafer embossed with a manger scene. This sharing of food and wafer was a ceremony that my grandmother upheld all her life. To the rest of the family, it was just a ritual prelude to the real celebration on Christmas Day.

This year, without Babcia, my mother and I spent Christmas Eve alone, wrapping presents and cleaning the big old farm house, wondering exactly what to do to make tomorrow seem like the happiest day of the year, the way it always had when Babcia was alive. Uncle George was the only one who stopped to visit us, and then I wished he hadn’t after he told me I looked like a monkey in an apron. He scolded his sister, “Well, Marisia, you’ve made a regular sissy out of Danny.” My mother waved her hand at him and said, “You men are all alike.”

George had seen me working in the kitchen before, when I used to help my grandmother, and I thought this was a peculiar time to start objecting. But I didn’t say anything. Besides, I didn’t care what Uncle George thought. If he didn’t like something, that was all the more reason why I should.

George was my mother’s oldest brother. He reminded me of the sports coach at school. They were both coach-like, I thought, big buses puffing and snorting. There was always a cigar in George’s mouth, like an exhaust pipe. At times he would talk with it secured at the corner of his lips, smoke billowing forth with each word. When I was little, he would always pick me up and tell me how heavy I was getting. Because I was a boy, he never gave me a kiss the way he did the girls, and I was glad. They told me his mouth smelled funny.

George took my mother and me with him to Midnight Mass, and we picked up his wife Jane and their children on the way. Angeline was his oldest daughter, a year younger than I was. She and I sat backwards in the station wagon and stared out the rear window at the houses and fields lightly dusted with snow. Then we made fun of the way the various kids climbed on board the school bus every day on the way to St. Mary’s Mystical Rose Catholic School. George told us we sounded like a couple of cackling hens, so we started making chicken noises until we got the rest of the kids started and my mother said, “I think you two big ones in the back should remember where we’re going.,” and we shut up.

Although the holiday was no longer the same with Babcia gone, all her children dolled up for it anyway and came to our house on Christmas Day just as they always had. Aunt Cecelia wore her white clip-on button earrings and a pop-bead necklace to match. She was my mother’s sister. The cousins all came to attention when Cecelia and her husband, Glen, walked in with their expensive gifts. After Cecelia delivered the necessary greeting and touchless kisses, she walked stiffly into the living room and deposited the packages under the Christmas tree. When she was safely out of the room, the littlest cousins scurried to the presents asking which ones were theirs. Julia, Angeline, and I, the oldest cousins, feigned nonchalance as we elbowed one another for a peek at the tags. For no apparent reason, some of the gifts would always be strange or useless, and it was our game to see whom Aunt Cecelia would favor each year. When his wife wasn’t looking, Uncle Glen would slip five dollars to those who got the booby prizes. The younger cousins whispered to me and giggled about the name tags on the packages. Aunt Margaret walked over and said under her breath, “I wonder who gets the oatmeal this year.” We laughed, remembering Cecelia’s special gift to Julia last year. Margaret said to her daughter, “Just remember, Julia, she doesn’t have any children of her own.”

Being fifteen, I was the object of many jokes at this family gathering. Glen told me that my legs had grown twice as fast as my shoulders. Cecelia muttered something about hormones. George told me my hair looked like the bush that burned but was not consumed. As a matter of fact, I was very pleased with my new hairstyle. It was longer than it had ever been—daringly long, over my ears, and I was training it to do the latest thing, or so I thought. In reality, my bushy locks would never swing across my forehead the way the Beatles’ hair did. The thick clumps jutted out at angles from my part and made my head look as if it were shaped like an anvil. My mother tried to tell me that curly hair was beautiful and that I had it because Babcia had rubbed olive oil on my head when I was a baby.

George and Glen took their places around the card table in the dining room. Julia’s father, Tom, joined them, and soon they were howling over the game.

“He’s got solid trump; I’ll be damned,” George hooted. “Hey, Meg,” he called to Tom’s wife in the kitchen, “come over here and take this fourth hand.”

Cecelia and Jane and my mother stayed in the kitchen and puttered over the food, hauling special dishes out of the cupboard, unwrapping the good silverware, getting out the tablecloths. They pulled open the dining room table so that it ran the length of the room.

“You guys move that card table,” Margaret ordered as my mother swung the folded table pads less than six inches away from her nose and plunked them on the Duncan Phyfe table. “We eat in about an hour,” my mother shouted.

I kept thinking about the way my grandmother used to prepare Christmas dinner for the whole family—great quantities of ham and kielbasa and turkey, which she offered relentlessly, the other women moving like gears to the sound of her guiding voice. This year, the dinner was potluck. Jane brought baked beans with ham, and Margaret brought pies. Cecelia was asked to “bring a vegetable,” lest she bring a concoction that no one could identify.

My mother was making periodic stops at the oven to pull out the turkey, proudly basting it and calling, “The turkey is almost done!” forgetting how last night she called it “that 28-pound devil” that she had lugged home on the Greyhound bus from Detroit. She set the loaves of rye and pumpernickel bread on the kitchen table and opened the box of chruszciki, arranging the powdery confections delicately in her favorite pink glass bowl. Then she went to the cupboard to bring out the real prize: two coffee cakes drizzled with frosting. She carried the loaves to the table on a tray as if they were crown jewels on a velvet pillow.

“Maria!” George looked up from his cards, the first to notice. “Did you make Ma’s coffee cakes”

“Sure did,” my mother said, eyes on the cakes until they were safe in the center of the table.

“Bless your heart,” George said, flicking his cigar ashes into the ashtray. He kissed her on the cheek. “Wouldn’t be Christmas without ‘em, would it?”

“Sure wouldn’t,” Margaret added from the card table. “What’d you do, Maria, get up at four o’clock to make those?

My mother smiled. “I had a little help,” she said and looked my way. We had worked for hours trying to duplicate Babcia’s babka, my mother carefully deciphering the awkward mix of Polish and English in which the recipe was written.

“Yeah, that kid is turning into a regular little baba,” George pointed out to everyone at the card table. I cringed and waited to see if he was finished humiliating me, while I tried to imagine how my diminutive grandmother had ever produced a strapping six-footer like him.

Karl and Lorraine were the last to arrive. We heard the stomping of twelve boots on the wooden porch. “Sounds like they’re going through the floor,” Margaret said and took a swig from her highball. My mother tapped on the window pane for their attention. “Go around the back,” she mouthed through a hold in the frost.

Aunt Lorraine entered with a pot of stuffed cabbages, her three girls and little Davey in a row behind her shouting, “We brought gołąki!” Uncle Karl said, “Merry Christmas,” kicking off his boots and balancing packages.

“Hey Karl,” the men yelled from the card table, “Where the hell you been?”

“Did you ever see a cow milk itself?” Karl yelled into the dining room. George yelped. Lorraine made disapproving noises through her teeth and began saying Merry Christmas to everyone, calling them by name.

“Now don’t you boys get too wrapped up in those cards,” my mother said as she licked powdered sugar off her fingers and kissed her youngest brother on the cheek, taking the bottle of vodka he was waving and setting it on the kitchen sink.

This Christmas it was Davey’s turn to get the treatment from George. “And how is the pączek?” George shouted, referring to Davey as “the donut.” He rose from the card table and pinched the boy on the cheek. Then he lifted Davey off the floor, his big hands clamped to his nephew’s armpits. Davey looked around at the room full of people staring at him and asked to be put down. George threw his head back and roared, lifting the child higher until his head hit the ceiling. Aunt Jane urged him to put the boy down. When he did, she pressed Davey’s face into her apron, just as Babcia had done to me years ago.

In the kitchen, a mixed set of chairs from every room in the house surrounded the big round oak table. These were for us kids.

“I think Danny’s old enough to sit with us grown-ups now, don’t you?” Aunt Cecelia said to my mother as I passed through the kitchen.

“What do you think about that?” my mother said to me.

“In here’s fine,” I told her. I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to sit in the other room and listen to George’s bellowing and Cecelia’s weird remarks all through dinner.

“Pretty soon he’ll be graduatin’, won’t he?” Cecelia added.

“For heaven’s sake woman,” my mother said impatiently, “he’s only in the ninth grade. Don’t rush it. It’s goin’ fast enough as it is.”

Margaret let out a shriek as George grabbed her when they passed beneath the mistletoe I had hung between the kitchen and the dining room. “Come on, Meg,” he said, “have another shot,” and headed back to the card table. Margaret tucked wisps of hair back into her 1940s-style hairdo and adjusted her short skirt before she went back to the game. George poured several shots of vodka and passed them to everyone within reach. “Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia,” he saluted, and everyone gulped down their shots. Margaret let out a yell. “I don’t know what that Polack is saying,” she said, “but I’ll drink to it!”

“That woman’s got a pair of lungs on her,” George said to Tom. Margaret grasped the bodice of her dress and screeched again.

I did not want to hear the Polish words coming from George’s mouth, his loud toasts destroying the gentle greetings I had always heard from my grandmother. It was never like this when she was alive, everyone so loud and harsh. It seemed to me that they had all just plain forgotten about her.

I slinked back and forth from the kitchen, getting pop for my cousins while the card players continued to howl over the pinochle game.

“Well when we had a war to fight, dammit, we fought it,” George suddenly shouted at Thomas and Margaret.

“Oh no,” Julia whispered to me, “they’re talking p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s,” and she rolled her eyes. My mother once told me not to complain about adult conversations because I shouldn’t be listening in on them anyway. I said well you could not be anywhere within a mile and not hear George’s conversations. But I didn’t think there was any use in trying to voice my opinion about the war since I was only fifteen. After all, I thought sarcastically, it will be three whole years before I am expected to go to Vietnam and kill people.

Thomas and Margaret, however, encouraged Julia to converse with the adults. This aggravated my mother to no end.

“George, what are you getting your dander up for?” Margaret said and reached over the card table to pull his nose. Tom smiled indulgently at his wife’s antics and added for good measure, “I still don’t know what we’re doing over there.”

Julia left my side and strutted up to the card table. “What’s goin’ on, Ma?” She poked her mother in the arm. I saw my mother glaring, and I hoped Julia would say something outrageous.

“You don’t have to worry about it,” George said to Julia, “you’re a girl. You’ve got a lot of big strong men around to protect you.” Somehow I knew that was supposed to be an insult to me.

I slouched by the card table, hoping George would not notice me, since I was too big to be grabbed under the arms and picked up, but I heard his voice boom, “Hey, Danny boy, come here. How about a Christmas drink with your old uncle?” His red face beckoned through a haze of cigar smoke that rose above him in a cherry-scented wreath.

I tried to act interested in something in the kitchen. “No,” I said, “That’s okay.”

“Come on, sit down over here. Have on Christmas drink.” He pulled a chair from the dining room table over next to his chair. Well, there is no getting out of this, I thought.

“Okay, but I don’t like it straight,” I answered.

“Ohhh,” he smirked, “you gotta have a shot. I’ll show you how to do it. You don’t have a thing to worry about.”

He poured vodka from the bottle into a shot glass. I resented the clumsy way he handled my grandmother’s old glasses. George looked greedily at the shot and raised the glass to his mouth. “Na zdrowie!” He tilted his head back and emptied the glass down his throat, then lowered his head and smacked his lips. “How’s that?” he said proudly.

“That’s pretty good,” I answered with the least possible enthusiasm.

“Of course you can always have a little chaser with it.” He stood up and ceremoniously poured me a glass of water. Then he poured one shot of vodka for each of us. Julia looked at me and rolled her eyes.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, saluting with his shot glass.

I took my vodka and began to sip it, as if it were hot tea.

“Drink it down, drink it down,” George ordered.

I forced the liquor to my mouth and tried to pour it down. George was watching closely, as if preparing suggestions for the improvement of my technique. The vodka burned and I started to choke. I put the glass on the table, half full. “I don’t want any more,” I announced.

“Now what do you want to do that for?” George asked. “Can’t you even finish one little drink with me? You know, you can’t be a little boy forever.”

I stood up to leave the table, but George grabbed my elbow. “Where are you goin’?” he said, “you haven’t finished your Christmas drink.”

I did not want the drink or George’s advice. My face got red and I squirmed. A wave of anger came up from my stomach and I said, “Quit picking on me!” That was the first time I had ever talked back to George. I had said it too loudly. I repeated it in a quieter tone. “Quit picking on me.”

George released my arm. There were no other voices in the room. “Picking on you? I am trying to make a man out of you. Look at you with that hair. Who do you think you are, Jesus Christ himself with that hair?”

George towered over me, his full six-foot-two shaking. He reached out and jabbed my shoulder. “I’d like to take a match to it,” he added under his breath. “What are you kids tryin’ to prove now days.”

“George, what’s the matter with you? Leave my son alone,” my mother said from her place by the table. “If Ma was here, you wouldn’t be talking like this, getting yourself drunk. You better just cool off.”

Jane took her husband’s arm and led him away from the card table. I heard him say, “Just one Christmas drink…” and Jane say, “It’s the style honey, like the Beatles.”

My mother stepped over to the table and lit the candles that flanked the coffee cakes. “Honest to God, George,” I heard her whisper, “that’s my son you know, of did you forget?”

“Don’t you kids pay no attention,” Karl announced into the living room.

I wanted to disappear. Everyone seemed to be looking at me as if it were my fault, as if for all these years the only thing between me and them had been my grandmother, and now that she was gone this party, this dinner, this Christmas drink were all a big sham. I decided I wasn’t going to speak to anyone for the rest of the day. I just stood there and glared at George. But my mother put her arm around me and whispered, “Come on Danny, what do you suppose Grandma would think about this? That’s her son, you know.” Aunt Jane came over and gave me the same look she had given Davey when he was suspended in midair earlier in the day. “Never mind all this,” she said.

“Does anybody want some of this Jell-O?” Aunt Cecelia called, oblivious from the kitchen.

Three little voices called, “I do, I do, I do,” from the living room.

“Tell Aunt Cissy not before dinner,” Margaret hollered, adding, “Honestly woman,” to her sister-in-law.

“Come on everybody,” Jane called, “There’s presents to be opened. Let’s not wait!” At which all the cousins rushed loudly into the living room grabbing each other’s arms and flocking toward the Christmas tree. One by one, the family rose and stepped to the other room. Then Angeline went, and then so did I.

“Hey Santa Claus,” Margaret jabbed George in the ribs. “Pass out the presents.” George looked a little woozy. “I said pass out the presents,” Margaret hooted, “not pass out.”

“Yeah Santa Claus, pass out the presents,” Jane said as she tied a beard onto George’s face. Margaret grabbed the Santa hat and plopped it on George’s head while the cousins all laughed at the transformation. They ushered him over to the tree as he resisted half-heartedly, for George was always the pretend Santa at our Christmas parties, as far back as I could remember.

George called out the names on the packages, and the little ones all said, “Thank you Santa” when he handed them a gift, his eyes twinkling, is cheeks red from vodka. Aunt Cecelia watched from the archway as the furious unwrapping began.

With each gift, Santa’s ho ho ho grew steadier and more confident until he finally said to me, “And here’s a present for you, young man,” his arms outstretched. I grimaced and reached for the package. The tag said “To Danny from Aunt Cecelia and Uncle Glen.” As I slowly untied the ribbon, I looked across the room. I saw Glen reaching for his wallet . . . .

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Rooted in real events, this is a work of fiction, written in the late 1960s when families were beginning to be torn apart by the Vietnam War.

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