The Christmas of My Second Mother

(This is Part 4 of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’)

Ada had been cooking food for tables filled with people for as long as she could remember. That memory extended back to the small farm in Italy that was said goodbye to while still a child, to emigrate to America.

With six children now grown, Ada looked forward to each Christmas as a time to gather them all back together around in the home they had grown up in – the four brothers in one bedroom, the two sisters in another.

Christmas dinner was somewhat larger than her usual meals. Two or three kinds of meat, a baked pasta, three or four vegetable dishes – but there was no set or insisted-upon format. It was the food she cooked each day, just gathered together in a larger way. The china was not decorated with a Christmas theme,  but the tablecloth was old, linen, and full of memories. It was difficult for everyone to fit around the table, scrunched together on the bench lining one side of the long table, yet they did somehow, often taking turns – one slipping in here or there, another wandering into the kitchen to nibble and talk at the smaller  table there piled with food and spoons and newspapers and clutter.

It was comfortable at Ada’s Christmas dinner. People talked and ate and drank, and they even yelled sometimes to get themselves heard over the others. Laughter rang out and conversation flew as if it were the surrounding air itself. There were angers and resentments in this family, deep ones – but they could wait till later. Right now, they were simply suspended.

Ada, for once, sat down.

Ada never sat down when people were eating. It seemed an impossibility, against the laws of nature. As Mother, she swooped around and fussed and fed and questioned and demanded. But at Christmas she sat down, and it was like a small miracle happening right before one’s eyes,  blinked at in momentary disbelief.

Dinner was the thing on this day. The wrapped Christmas presents were few, small, desultory. And the dinner was all about the table, where everyone would gather.

The same stories were told year after year. Ada held pride of place with the story of her family coming to America on a big boat all together, and of  how soon all of them were working at menial jobs, all seven brothers and sisters – to send the oldest son to college. Then of how when this revered eldest brother  graduated with the degree bought by his siblings labors – he had disappeared from the family without a how-do-ye-do, without the promise of return of favors in any way at all.

And this was true. He had done this. And as he lived far apart from his family, wealthy and well-positioned, his no-longer-young sister remembered him. “It was America”, she would announce, “America”.

“It breaks the family. This never would have happened in Italy!” and everyone would listen and try to understand something for which there really was no understanding.

Ada chose to put the blame on the place, rather than on the person. Was there an answer? All we knew was that this man who was not here was missing out on something – and we looked at Ada’s son whom she had given her brother’s name. And we held it all in our hearts.

Another story of a Christmas long ago, when all six children were school-age was told – sometimes by Ada, more often by one of her children.

Ada had suddenly decided that this year, they would go to Mass on Christmas. Often they didn’t. Time was always short, things were always running late. The family never seemed to make it anywhere on time. Remembering this brought peals of laughter from most of the table.

On this year now long past, they would go to Mass, and not only would they go, Ada decided, they would go in style. People would see what this family was all about!

Ada bought fabric and made space for her sewing machine between the children’s schoolwork and the spoons and the newspapers on the table. And she cut and sewed for some number of days.

On Christmas morning, she insisted everyone be up early. Calling them downstairs, she held out a stack of black bundles. “Here”, she said. And each of the six children, from the littlest four-year old to the eldest fifteen-year old, was given a bundle. “Put these on, quick! And we’ll go.”

Some of her children were mortified. Some of her children were thrilled. What they had to wear to Mass that day, each boy and girl, were six matching black capes and six matching black berets.

Where had that idea entered her head?

The story of Madeleine perhaps? Where children wore capes . . . and where

In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines

In two straight lines they broke their bread

Brushed their teeth

And went to bed

The capes and berets did not bring the children into two straight lines. They remained, as Ada would say (with a look of wonder and sheer motherly pride): “Like spokes on a wheel – all different, each one going a different way.”

My mother Ada’s Christmas gift was not the food. It was not piles of shiny wrapped presents.

Her gift was of a table baited with food, leading those captured right to the brink of some stories, the sort of stories that can (and that must, at times) sustain us.

(To read the final installation of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’ click here)

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