Like the smell from a burnt roast, it lingers.
On several occasions, I’ve written about my rocky relationship with my parents. I loved them and I’m certain that they loved me but that love was tested time and again.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that I am much like them, for good and bad. Oh, the traits we acquire from our gene pool before we even realize they’re floating around in there. Then finally, one day, they blindside us with their clarity.
My parents loved me, but my baby sister was the apple of their eye. My estranged brother, the middle child, I no longer reflect upon.
This was how we used to “do” Christmas. Although my father was a Jew (non-practicing), he enjoyed the holiday as much as any of us. My Italian mother, who also had a good time after a few belts, I believe could take it or leave it. She enjoyed herself and could throw down with the best of them, but didn’t get misty-eyed where holidays were concerned, especially those of the Hallmark variety, like Mother’s Day. But she dearly loved visiting with her three sisters and brothers over the holiday season. All together, they were funny as hell and a hell of a good time.
For Christmas Eve, though, my mom was all in and went all out. The evening was spent at my folk's place, where I grew up in a Chicago suburb. When we were younger, the night before the “big day” was celebrated at one of my mom’s sister’s home, on the south side of the city.
My siblings and our many cousins had a blast! Frequently, my uncle made one or more of us “stand in the corner,” for bad behavior, or what was perceived as such. We thought it was a hoot. After we had done our penance, he would herd us all up and out for Christmas carolling!
My favorite cousin, who is my age, was a trouble-making delight and a chick magnet. We would play 45 rpm records in his room before dinner and talk about damn near everything.
Midnight was my family’s cue to roll on home as my aunt, uncle and cousins would attend midnight mass.
That was then, and as we all got older and married, traditions changed, as they always do. And often, that’s a good thing. Until it isn’t.
So, Christmas Eve was hosted by my parents and on Christmas Day, my husband and I would head over to his folk's house, also on the south side of Chicago. My in-laws were amazing, wonderful people who treated me like a daughter from Day One.
Christmas at their home was as close to a sense of holiday “normalcy” as I’d ever experienced. We sat and talked, quietly, civilly, without yelling. We drank, but everyone held their booze, and we enjoyed a delicious feast. Even better, we left there infused with a warm, fuzzy glow and no regrets.
To my folk’s credit, they did go all out for Christmas Eve. My mother would bust out all the typical Italian fare like baked clams, fried calamari, other assorted seafood, and a boatload of pasta with her signature “gravy.” The house was beautifully decorated by my sister, complete with hand-embroidered stockings over the fireplace — the whole schmear.
It was all wonderful. Until the booze kicked in. My parents were world-class drinkers and after a certain point, there were often arguments. My husband and I, in order to “get through” the night, would frequently match them in imbibing copious amounts of alcohol. Not smart.
Before I go on, I want to be fair and stress that we enjoyed many delightful Christmas Eves with my family, but sometimes it got ugly, like on this particular night.
We had dinner, we drank, we exchanged gifts and drank some more. My husband and I were at the house for several hours and after a while, we just hit a wall. Wiped out, we had a long drive back to our apartment in the city and just wanted to burrow in at home with our cats.
Unfortunately, this rubbed my parents the wrong way. At this juncture, after several vodkas-on-the-rocks, followed by Sambuca (with the coffee beans added, mind you) it didn’t take much. My dad, especially, was not a jolly drinker. Never, as a matter of fact, in my long recollection, was my father a “happy drunk.” His mood would turn on a dime. One wrong look, or a negative perception of something we’d said, and he’d get very mean, very fast.
It must have been at least ten or eleven p.m. and we were finally getting around to dessert and coffee. Now, in the scheme of things, that’s not so bad, but when you’ve been sucking down the booze all night at some point you have to call “game.”
We had a cup of two of coffee and then decided to call it quits. My husband was sober as a judge by then and raring to get going.
Mom and Dad still weren’t having it. As I remember, I don’t think my mother put up much of a fight as she, too, was exhausted, after all her work, but with my father, it was a completely different scenario. He took our wanting to leave as a personal slight. When he had too much to drink he took damn near everything as a personal slight.
Words were exchanged, on both sides, even as we were hurriedly getting into our coats to get the hell out of Dodge. I don’t remember what my siblings were doing. Hiding, perhaps, or just watching the Jewish/Italian tragedy unfold.
The coup de gras came when my father said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “What? You gotta get home to feed your cats?”
Now, whatever you do, never talk smack about our cats. They’re our “kids,” and that is that. As he was an animal-lover, albeit had only shared his life with dogs, this came out of left-field. Booze can be a real bitch, can it not?
I don’t recall what our response was, but my father hurled a nasty invective aimed at me. My husband, who normally is so self-contained, lost it and fired back, “Don’t you ever talk to my wife that way!”
And we were out the door.
If memory serves, I believe two years passed before we spoke to my parents, again. I’m having a bit of a lapse in recall as there were at least a couple of incidents that incited a long hiatus, between us.
They were never good at apologies. In fact, none of us were ever good at “talking things out.” We weren’t that kind of family.
But family we were and I miss those times, as crazy as they sometimes were. Gone five years now, I wonder how my parents would take this story. My father, no doubt, would be pissed as hell but I know from experience, in his writer’s soul, he would experience another emotion, as well.
And that would be pride in his firstborn. Even now.
Happy Holidays, all. With love.
© Sherry McGuinn, 2020. All Rights Reserved.
Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications. Sherry’s manager is currently pitching her newest screenplay, a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story.