The following is a column from Kathy Nolan Deschenes. To submit your own column, e-mail the editor at [email protected]
My parents were the Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig of the family. Since before I can remember, they hosted a huge Christmas Eve party at their house. It was an open house so people came and went as the night went on.
They didn’t have a lot of money back when I was young but saved all year to make Christmas “big” for everyone they loved.
There are still home movies of family members coming in the door of my parents’ small Cape with the unfinished second floor in Chelmsford. It was their first house and they were so proud to have a home to host family events.
A few years later they moved to a bigger home in Lowell that was perfect for the large events they loved so much.
Dad was in charge of the bar and the coats. Mom handled the food and the entertainment. You couldn’t walk into my parents’ house without my dad saying, “What can I get ya to drink?”. Even into their eighties, that was dad’s greeting.
Mom’s signature greeting was a loud “HEY!” with arms dramatically thrown into the air to hug you before you even reached her.
Hospitality was their gift.
Mom loved a house full of people. Dad, although he was never the extrovert mom was, loved to be surrounded by family and friends as well. They glowed at parties. To them, helping others have fun was the best fun they could have.
While dad made the highballs and ribbed people about their favorite sports team or political candidate, mom worked the room. She would flit from person to person with a face lit up with love and joy. Her hazel eyes large and shining; her arms up for more hugs. And laughing. Always laughing.
The dining room table was filled with hot and cold appetizers and entrees that they didn’t have to fuss over. There were desserts and coffee. And, my favorite as a kid, chocolate-covered cherries.
Oh what a treat those were at Christmas – the only time we had them in the house. My mom had a fancy china dish for them with scalloped edges, little rosettes and gold accents. This only made the treat more special to me and my brother (and more tempting). “Don’t eat all of those before company comes!”, she would yell from the kitchen.
“Company” was always family and sometimes friends. Relatives from four generations would crowd into the house and squeeze onto the couch. Coming mostly from Irish-Americans, the stories would get sillier and increasingly boisterous as the highballs flowed.
Even as a child I knew how lucky I was to have so many generations in one place. Every Christmas Eve, my brother and I would put on a Christmas show that we wrote for the event. Our stage was at the bottom of the stairs which wound up to our bedrooms that were bright with candles in the window with frost on their panes.
After one-too-many chocolate-covered cherries, my brother and I would be whisked off to bed by my mom. We would complain and whine because we wanted to stay up for the real fun that we knew was coming.
Once in bed, we would strain to hear all the goings on downstairs. With the candles still glowing in our darkened rooms and us all snuggled in our beds, we would hear our favorite Christmas songs played on the piano by my mom. All the adults, now stuffed with mom’s Swedish meatballs and my grandmother’s infamous chocolate cake with the candied cherries on top, would sing at the top of their lungs. Except for my grandfather. He would sing with his teacher face, concentrating on hitting every note. Singing was serious business for him.
We’d listen to the singing and the cheering and the laughing. Horrible attempts at harmony followed by more laughing. The Christmas songs would lead into For Me and My Gal, Five Foot Two, and all the other classics my mom would play because everyone knew the lyrics.
All the while, my mother would laugh while trying to sing along. Forever distracted by others having fun. She had a great laugh. Right from her toes. Bending over the piano keys with her mouth open in a huge exhale before getting more air and laughing again.
God, I loved listening to Christmas Eve from my magical room with the candle in the window.
After everyone left (very late), my folks would stay up later to clean up and (I found out later) wrap our gifts.
They’d go to bed just before my brother and I would wake them up early to see if Santa had come. We would race downstairs and wait for them. Our eyes darting from package to package. “He brought SO much!”, we would say to each other.
After a morning of opening the copious amounts of gifts my parents bought us, they would head to the kitchen and start preparing Christmas dinner. A few hours later, most of the Christmas Eve crowd would return for a full meal.
Dad would ask, “What can I get ya to drink?” while taking coats. Mom would fly to the door with her arms in the air for a hug that looked like she hadn’t just seen the returning relative 12 hours before.
Christmas was big to my parents. And they loved it that way. Celebrating the great fortune that was manifest in the family that surrounded them was the real meaning of the holiday to them.
My husband and I put up our tree tonight. Our own traditions solidly around us: Ornaments collected during our 26 years of marriage, our favorite Christmas CDs playing on the stereo, candles in the windows of our own home.
And when James Taylor sang to us to have a merry little Christmas my voice, which had been belting out the lyrics for several stanzas, caught in my throat when I got to “little Christmas”.
That’s what it is now that mom and dad are gone. Little. No more singing around the piano, no house full of crazy Irish stories, no chocolate-covered cherries in the special china dish.
I had to stop for a moment and find my joy again. Christmas will never be the same without my parents. They filled my Christmases with so much gratitude for my place in the family tree that I shared with them.
For a second I had a strong vision of them standing with their arms around each other in front of the last Christmas tree they shared together. They were smiling at me. Dad with his football-player shoulders and mom with her pretty little face looking at me with such love.
I picked up another ornament and continued on with a lump in my throat. My husband stopped and looked at me. Knowing my thoughts. He looked at me with such love and understanding that I was able to continue.
It will be a little Christmas for me and for us. But my heart is full of gratitude for the gift my parents gave me that is bigger and merrier than any I’ve ever received.