I don’t remember the Christmas of 1966; I was only six weeks old. But I’ve heard the story of the blizzard that attacked Chicago as we were about to hit the road in our Volkswagen Beatle. And how my mom handed me off to her brother, a 20-year-old college student who had never changed a diaper, just as he was boarding a flight for Canton, Ohio. When my grandparents met Uncle David at the gate, it had been months since they’d seen their son. But all they were interested in was the little pink bundle in his arms. They took that bundle and kept it safe until my parents emerged from the VW in the wee hours, half-frozen from driving all night with a busted heater.
In a way, my grandparents kept me safe for the 41 Christmases that followed for no matter where I was in my life, everything was always okay at their house in Canton. Their brown and white Tudor on 21st Street was a flipbook of happy holiday memories from the Christmas Eve birthday parties for Aunt Monica, just eleven years older than me, to the obscene gift exchange the next morning. Each year on the 24th, friends and family would gather in the “finished” side of my grandparents’ basement to socialize, listen to records on the 1942 Wurlitzer, and eat. Grandma put out stuffed celery, mixed nuts and pizzelles, anise flavored waffle cookies that she painstakingly made, two at a time, on a waffle iron stamped with the Rose family name. Pop Pop stood behind the bar mixing Manhattans and telling dirty jokes to his buddy George Grywalski and a cast of supporting characters like the Lung brothers, and our vertically challenged cousin, Donnie Bell, who had shared a bed with my grandfather and Uncle Tony when they were poor Italian kids on the other side of town. I, the precocious only grandchild from Chicago, was a featured attraction, regaling guests with stories of my travels around the country to hear my mom sing.
When I tired of the fawning and cheek pinching in the basement, I’d climb up the creaky stairs to ogle the mountain of gifts in the living room, many of which were for me. Once when I was four years old, Santa made a surprise visit to the party. As I leaned into his plump belly and told him what I wanted for Christmas, I had no idea he was really Pop Pop. Then my dad, playing along with a Method actor’s conviction, yelled from the back porch to come quickly because Santa was leaving. I ran out into the chilly night and looked up past the brick chimney to the sky where Daddy was pointing. “Did you see it? Did you see it?” he cried. To this day, I will swear under oath that I saw the reindeer-driven sleigh getting smaller and smaller as it flew into the night.
By morning, a few special unwrapped gifts had appeared under the tree, lifelike baby dolls or a giant Barbie head with waxy yellow hair you could style – evidence that Santa Claus had come. It took a while to distribute and open the other gifts, which always frustrated Pop Pop. He sat there, stone-faced with a big plastic trash bag, collecting torn paper and ribbon as soon as it hit the floor. Then he’d say something like, “There are people starving in Africa,” to make us feel sufficiently guilty about our excesses. After a breakfast prepared by Grandma, I’d spend the rest of the day playing with my new toys and goofing around with Aunt Monica and Uncle David, who would take me down to the basement, turn off all the lights, and scare the bejesus out of me. After eliciting a few blood-curdling screams, they’d bring me back upstairs until I pleaded, “Let’s go back down and do it again.”
By age eleven, I was done with Santa and no longer played with dolls but had something much better, a real live baby cousin. I adored him. As the only child of now divorced parents, the extended family that filled my grandparents’ house at Christmas became even more important. I didn’t care that certain classmates spent winter break in the Caribbean or Mexico; I had Canton. The affection with which I talked about the small town in Ohio made my friends wish they were spending Christmas there, too. The constancy of our traditions filled me with joy. I looked forward to Grandma’s pizzelles, my Great-Great Aunt Mary’s applesauce, the stockings filled with candy and gum and a check from my grandparents – always to be opened last. More exciting than the check was the tin foil ball of dried apricots at the very bottom. Apricots were gold in our family.
Little by little, things in Canton started to change. Grandma installed wall-to-wall red shag carpet that made the house look like Christmas all year round. The basement party got raucous with the addition of Monica ’s boyfriend and his twentysomething friends. Great-Grandma Jessie passed away and Aunt Mary took over hosting Christmas night at her farm in Paris, Ohio. I became a teenager. My mom had a serious boyfriend, a fun German hotelier with a daughter my age. When they married, she agreed to relocate from Chicago to northern Virginia but one thing was non-negotiable: Christmas in Canton. And so my stepfather was welcomed into the fold. And my stepsister. And an Indian Sikh named Puri who worked for my stepdad. They all celebrated Christmas in Canton, Ohio with us. Even if we arrived past midnight, my Pop Pop and Grandma would be waiting up with a table full of food.
Then, in 1985, my grandparents decided to move. They were in their sixties and didn’t want so much house to take care of. I was a college student, a legal adult, but felt like a little girl. All of my happy Christmas memories had taken place within the walls of that house. When everything else around me was spinning out of control, it was my touchstone. I was determined to hate their new place. It was so… new. But what the townhouse on Brookview lacked in charm, it made up for in convenience. There was more space for visiting family. The basement was fully finished, with a living room, bedroom and bath. Soon, we began carving out new traditions. Aunt Monica, married with two kids, took over hosting Christmas night with a party in her own basement. When my Jewish Canadian boyfriend, AO, joined us for the first time, we sat around the table singing Christmas carols in order to live up to his ideal of an American Christmas on shows like “Happy Days”. The following year, we upped the ante with a costumed singing contest. AO and I performed as both Sonny and Cher and Ike and Tina Turner but it was my grandparents who stole the show pretending to be two drunks, singing “Show me the way to go home.”
As it turned out, it was the people, not the house that made Christmas. No matter how late we arrived, Pop Pop and Grandma greeted us in the kitchen with homemade pizza, ham loaf and Chex mix. They still had the pizzelles, and the apricots wrapped in tin foil at the bottom of our stockings. They still had the magic. AO and I celebrated both of our kids’ first Christmases in Canton. We traveled from Los Angeles with an infant and toddler on two flights, across three time zones, and in treacherous snow storms. He lugged the suitcases and huge car seats while I breastfed with dark circles under my eyes. It was brutal. Sentimentality trumped common sense because my husband, God bless him, knew how much it meant to me. There could be no Christmas without Canton. But, eventually, of course, there was. The thing about getting older is, everybody else does, too. Pop Pop passed away two months after turning 90 and Grandma went into a nursing home a year later. I was fortunate enough to spend 41 Christmases with them.
My boys, now seven and ten, will grow up remembering Christmas in Chicago at a condo overlooking Lake Michigan and the Lincoln Park Zoo. My mom, a professional event planner and former entertainer, does everything big. Her tree is the most beautiful, her table the most luxurious. And she’s a supreme gift giver. According to my kids, Nanny Mary Ann owns the zoo, knows Santa personally and can make it snow. My stepfather is a former chef, hotel executive and all-around creative genius. He can whip up crab cakes with cucumber salad, paper-thin crepes and flambéed Cherries Jubilee without breaking a sweat. Their holiday open house with waiters passing drinks on silver trays is a thousand light years from Pop Pop and Grandma’s annual party in the half-finished basement. But my boys believe their grandparents are magical, which is as it should be.