Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Aliquippa

I may have been eight when the switch occurred, maybe younger, but not much older. I remember sitting at my grandparent’s table for a Christmas feast. Candlesticks gleamed, wine glasses shimmered, a hand crocheted table cloth lay over dark green damask, along with big linen napkins, and special dishes. I had graduated from the kiddie table, and was permitted to sit with the big people, use real silver, and sip a bit of Cribari Mellow Flame. Grandmom lovingly prepared and presented each course, one after another, in leisurely succession. The conversation hummed on. Stories told. Recollections of meals we had known and loved. Oohs and Aahs at each new course’s arrival.

Grandmom came by the many-coursed meal honestly. In her region of Italy, Abruzzi, an ancient feast to the gods was held, called a panarda. With Catholic influence, it was cleansed of "gods" stuff, and added to the repertoire of special occasions, like weddings and feast days. I never quite got the hang of it though. By the time I had a few olives and a piece of fennel, some of Grandmom’s incredible wedding soup, and a bit of homemade pasta in a sauce simmered for hours with a veal bone and three-meat meatballs, I was stuffed. No room for the turkey, ham, roasted vegetables, broccoli. No room for salad. No room for tangerines, walnuts and Torrone candy. And even when she served a certain cookie I adored and said, "I made this especially for you", I was hard pressed to eat more than one or two.

So we’d sit and talk and tell stories. Actually the adults talked, and I’d listen, big eyed. Grandpa’s tales included secretly borrowing his foreman’s car to learn to drive and knocking over outhouses in the process. Or the time he was harassed by a ham fisted drunk bully, and being so scared Grandpa knocked the guy down, sat on him, pummeled him with his fists, and won. (Grandpa was about 5'7") Or the little old lady with a cane in Montegallo who chased him out of her cherry tree when he was a kid. Uncle Tony spoke about more genteel things, the beautiful hills in his region of Sicily, and ewes bearing lambs in the spring. All very educational.

After an hour or so, a bit of stomach room opened up and Grandmom would say, "Can I get you a little something?" And Uncle Tony would say, "Un poco." So out came the meats and vegetables and salad and desserts and fruit and Torrone. With a little more wine, and a little more coffee. Uncle Tony would then unbutton his pant’s top button, pat his stomach and say, "I feel just like the Pope." With that benediction, the meal was over.

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