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Jorden Mead - Christmas Eve in that Kitchen

           It’s tradition, every year on Christmas Eve everyone from our family ventures the wintery wonderland to my Great Grandparents house. Aunts and Uncles, cousins and grandparents of every generation gather in that house and celebrate Christmas. When I was younger I always just saw it as, infinite amounts of food, an insane amount of presents to unwrap, and endless amounts of hugs and kisses forced upon me. But, as I got older, I realized that, sure it was Christmas, but I think we celebrated the fact of being a family more than the actual holiday.

            Every other day throughout the year it was just a normal house, one that I thought to be haunted. The children would dare one another to walk up those dark, long, narrow steps but no one ever took the dare. Now that I think of it, maybe the adults told us that the upstairs was haunted so we would stay out of the bedrooms. Regardless, it was still haunted to me. There was nothing special to it really, just your ordinary house. Pictures of old memories and the way everyone used to look occupied the walls. The rugs were those shaggy carpets that looked like they belonged in the mystery machine from Scooby Doo.

            The kitchen had that old ‘60s tile pattern that was pretty atrocious. The lighting casted a fluorescent dim across the room that always made the cigarette smoke much more intriguing to watch. The ceiling hung so low, just like the bags under my great grandmother’s eyes. She did have seven children and that’s enough kids to make anyone have permanent eye bags. I always remember watching the adults having the ability to touch the ceiling and I always wondered if I would ever see the day when I too could touch that ceiling.

            Like I said before, it was a normal house, but when it was Christmas Eve it was as if there was a magical spell that was cast upon the house. Maybe I read too much Harry Potter growing up, but I swear there was something that changed that house. Before even entering the door I could feel the radiation of happiness and joy just like I can feel the rays of the sun on a hot clear day. Not only could I feel the joy and happiness, but I could hear the bellowing of laughter and smell the aroma of the well-prepared food. I’m a sucker for the food part. I was a chubby kid; Nana always told my parents, “Let the girl eat what she wants, she is growing.” Yeah I was growing alright. I was growing a big ol’ belly. It was just magical.

            As we entered the house on Christmas Eve the first thing to greet us was a huge Christmas tree. It was green and the presents underneath the tree were enough to overwhelm any kid. You really have to have some great patience skills being a child on Christmas. I think the grownups forget how much self-control we really had; sure we may break once, but damn I think we did a pretty good job for something that just sat there glowing under the Christmas tree, really just put there to tease you.

            Greeting everyone was such a task. Everyone wanted a hug and kiss and to ask how school is going. Boring stuff. I wanted to jump into the chili nana had cooked all day long and demolish the wrapping paper that was guarding the presents. Having such a big family isn’t always that great, by the time I was done hugging everyone and saying “hi,” I could barely feel my body from being squeezed too tight. The worst squeezer was by great grandma. She would always pinch my cheeks too hard, squeeze me so tight I felt like my eyes were about to pop out, and say, “Oh, look at you grandma’s little cutie!” I remember telling my parents every time before we would go to that she did this, and they told her to ease up but she never did. I was terrified to hug her because I would ache for the rest of the night!

            Most everyone gathered in the kitchen. If you were lucky enough to get there first you had a seat at the huge table that took up literally the whole kitchen. For the rest, you ended up on a hard metal chair stuck to the side or even worse you had to stand and lean up against the counter. I’m sure most of the grownups were leaning against the counter on account of one too many beers that they had to drink. My family was big into drinking; there wasn’t a family event that didn’t involve alcohol. Looking back on it they all had a serious problem, but they are family and you have to love them. It was always nice because I would get paid to go out on the porch and grab them their preferred drink of choice. The door of the back porch would open and a rush of cold, northern New York winter air would come in. It always felt so refreshing because it cooled your skin that was on fire from the overwhelming furnace and body heat that occupied the room. I would leave Christmas night with not only toys but a nice stash of dollar bills from those alcoholic loving aunts and uncles. My family also had a problem of smoking; I blame it on their generation though. It was normal for them, their parents smoked and so on so forth. Smoke constantly filled the air; at least one person at all times had their lips wrapped around a cigarette. The phrase, “Can you pass me your lighter?” was heard way too many times. Fingers flicked ashes into their designated trays and hands waved the fog of smoke in front of them away so they could see the person they were talking to across the table. My family also always played some sort of card game, they were notorious at family gatherings as well. Christmas Eve is where I first learned to play Kings. Cards were a must at family events and Christmas Eve wasn’t any exception. My mom always brought this wooden carved box full of coins. I always admired the carving on the box; it was just so beautiful. Everyone would sit at the table and the gambling and swearing began.

            I sat next to my parents, the dealer being my mom, got to choose the game. She chose kings so I could learn. They made me watch the first round, which was fine; I’m a visual learner. The next round was my time to shine! They dealt me in and I was nervous. I felt like such a grown up being able to sit at that table and engage in their activities. I wasn’t one of the kids anymore; I wasn’t running around playing hide and seek like a baby. Although I did miss my younger cousins, no one had hiding spots like I did. The game went great; I am a fast learner, and it was such an easy game. I didn’t win the game, but I won some independence and the title of the cool kid from all the other cousins.

            At the end of the night just before we left, we all gathered in the kitchen once more and sang Christmas songs, from Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer to Silent Night; Great Grandpa would always initiate the singing. I always laughed when someone would slip up and say the wrong lyrics. Mom and Dad would always say great grandpa would let loose because of the Coke and rum. I didn’t know what Coke and rum was, all I knew was that it did make grandpa sing Christmas carols and by the end of the night acquire a case of the hiccups. Singing Christmas carols was a blast, but something was missing. I ran to the room where my coat was and grabbed my flute. Why I had brought my flute with me is a question I think about a lot, but I did. I had memorized Jingle Bells for my concert at school and thought well I might as well play it for the family. So there we were in the kitchen, me playing the flute while everyone else sang their hearts out. After Christmas carols were done, everyone packed up and headed home for the night.

            Now, for Christmas Eves no one really shows anymore. The presents are all gone, the food selection slim, and the laughter not so loud. Everything is so different. Great Grandpa is too weak to sing Christmas carols; Great Grandma is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember my name. It seems as though the magic is gone. Boy, if those walls could talk. They could tell a million stories, share with you countless laughs, tears, and everything in between. I may not have known it then, but Christmas Eve wasn’t about the presents, the food, or the unwanted hugs and kisses, it was about family. I didn’t know that one day I would miss Great Grandma Long pinching my cheeks so hard and hugging me so tight. Or that I would miss the Coke and rum that made great grandpa brave enough to sing Jingle Bells. I didn’t know that I would also miss the people who had unfortunately passed on and wouldn’t be there to celebrate family with us any longer. I would have told myself to take it all in and appreciate everything. Appreciate the fact that Papa didn’t have lung cancer and chemo didn’t have to be discussed over ham dinner, appreciate the fact that my parents were still married and I didn’t have to split up my holiday time. I was lucky enough to witness family once, but I wish I could go back just one more time and experience Christmas Eve in that kitchen all over again.