My grandfather, a heavy drinker, raised my mom alone for a while. Until one night a woman drove by their house and saw a chimney fire. Ethel stopped to tell them and, as the story goes, ended up coming back as a housekeeper and to take over raising my mom. So to us, Ethel was like a grandmother even though we called her Auntie.
Her house at Christmas is one of my most vivid memories and has shaped what the holidays are for me.
Picture a short woman with ‘an immense bosom’ who never left the house without the wool suit, purse, gloves, heels, and pill-box hat matching. And then add a very firm, earthy, and fearless personality.
Her home was heated with oil and a boiler sat in the dining room. It made scary noises and the pilot flame was visible at the bottom. I knew the thing would blow up some day. There is a distinctive smell to that oil and it permeated the house.
A fireplace in the living room held a magic fire on Christmas Eve. Auntie had some sort of sparkly powder that, when tossed on the fire, made the flames a myriad of colors. From the mantle hung ugly red plastic mesh stockings full of oranges, walnuts, those gross hard candies that had some sort of mashed fruit in the middle, and bottles of school paste. As awful as the stockings were, I would have been heartbroken if they had ever held anything different.
The tree was small and the decorations quite old. I remember white birds sitting on the branches. A string of lights that were porcelain Santa heads. Another string of tiny metal bells. The Santa heads caught on fire one year. But I still have one left, strung with fraying ribbon, that I hang on my tree.
The presents were always functional. Socks, underwear, etc. Each package came with one stick of Wrigley’s gum taped to it. Occasionally one of us will still put a stick of gum on a package.
But the best part about Christmas Eve at her home was the smell. Not the oil burner. She was one of those cooks from an era of no recipes, just handfuls and pinches. There would be this heavy dark cake made with applesauce, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon, and no eggs. She called it her depression era cake. I called it a winter cake. I’m the one that makes it these days, and to me that dark, spicy denseness speaks of snow and packages and magic fire.
So house smelled of spices. Fried chicken and fried smelt. And candles and the resin sap of the tree. Of age and old mohair armchairs that scratched your skin. Of even older Reader’s Digest magazines stacked and unread. Of beeswax from polishing the upright piano. Of Pledge from dusting all the photos on top of the piano.
Christmas Eve to me was smothering hugs from Auntie (remember those large bosoms?), flour on the apron, firelight, Christmas tree lights on packages, all my favorite foods, the sense of being safe and loved, and the knowledge that if any dreams were going to come true, they would do so as I sat, dreaming, next to the multi-colored flames.
If I feel myself losing the magic of the winter solstice, of that slow turning toward sleep of the world around me, all I have to do is conjure up Auntie’s house.
I wish for you the return of good memories and old magic for your holidays.