Growing up Colella ~ The Christmas Spirit

(These stories are part of a larger unpublished novel with the same name. It is a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in an Italian-American family in New Hampshire in the 1970s)

The Christmas Spirit

It’s Christmas Eve and Aunt Cee is drunk. She’s funny when she’s drunk. It’s most always on holidays when she’s like this. The thing I don’t get is why she’s sitting with us and not with the rest of the adults who are all at the big table in the dining room.

We have to sit in the kitchen—me, Ted, Paula, Angela, Little Frank and Sal—at the kiddy table. I sit out here every year because I’m one of the youngest. I don’t’ really mind even though sometimes I pretend to. Out here I can goof off and Little Frank and me can play with our food like we like to.

Carmen and Lisa got to sit at the big table this year. They just got back from singing in that “folk mass” or whatever it is. But, Aunt Cee, she’s sitting out here with us. Usually, she doesn’t really sit anywhere, just goes between rooms all the time, but tonight she has a real place between Paula and Angela who are sitting across from me. She’s not even dressed for the holiday. She still has on a short sleeved t-shirt and slippers. Her hair is all messy.

We’re eating and listening to her stories. She’s telling us how, when she was younger, she used to sneak cigarettes with her other girl cousins. When they couldn’t find cigarettes, they’d smoke from the wicker chairs. She says one time they smoked a whole chair. How do you smoke wicker? A whole chair? Wow!

Then all of the sudden, she says, “I hate your Uncle Ted.”

This makes me stop chewing, leaving a clump of half chewed food in my mouth, and look up at her. What? Hate Uncle Ted? Nobody hated Uncle Ted. There was nothing to hate about him. Lots of times, I wish I could have been the one that was named after him. The brave soldier who died in World War II, when he was young, when Aunt Cee was young—though she was older than him—when Dad was only six.

Everyone else has stopped eating and is looking up at Aunt Cee too, except for Little Frank. He keeps right on munching, his head down close to his place. Maybe he didn’t hear.

Aunt Cee is nodding her head up and down with her eyes closed, breathing loud. It’s so quiet out here it makes my ears hurt. I can hear Dad telling a story in the next room but I’m not listening to it—only hearing his voice.

“I do. I hate him,” she says. “He knows it. I tell him, ‘I hate you! I hate you!’” She screams with her eyes closed. Then she gets up, runs into the bathroom and closes the door.

I look at Ted who looks at Sal who looks at Paula who looks at Angela and the looks go around the table like this. I turn the other way and look at Little Frank. “Well,” he says, shaking his head, “Camilla’s looped again.”

I snicker and turn back to Ted but he’s got that look on his face—that real concerned one, like when he’s feeling scientific about something—“Poor Aunt Cee,” he says.

I can’t look at him or at anyone else but Little Frank and my food, so I start to eat again. “Wow,” I say.

No one else says anything. I take a piece of squid, one with the legs still on it, onto my fork and stick it into Little Frank’s face. He grabs it with his teeth, leaving the legs hanging out of his mouth, and pretends to wrestle with it.

I do the same thing with another piece. We’re making all these stupid struggling noises and laughing but no one else is. Squid is the greatest food. Little Frank and I always enjoy ourselves on Christmas Eve.

The bathroom door opens. I throw the piece of squid from my mouth onto Little Franks’ plate. He swears at me then opens the drawer under the table and sticks both pieces in there. We always make sure to sit on the side of the table that has the drawer so that we can play with it and leave things there for the women to find later when they go to get silverware for dessert.

Aunt Cee comes out blowing her nose and sits back down between Paula and Angela. Her eyes are puffy She looks around the table slowly, then puts her head down and says, “I’ll pay for it. I know. But I can’t help it. I do.”

“But why, Aunt Cee?” Paula says. “Why do you hate him?”

Aunt Cee puts her hand over Paula’s and they squeeze them together so tight that it looks like they want to hurt each other. I want to look away, to sneak the drawer open and see where little Frank put the squid but I can’t stop looking at those hands.

“Because he told me,” she says, shaking their hands and squeezing harder. “He made me. I’m stuck here in this house because of him. It’s his fault.”

What? I’m looking around the table to see if I’ve missed something but everyone—except little Frank who is still eating, acting like nothing’s going on—looks as confused as me. I look back at those hands. They’re squeezing tight around my heart.

“He told me, before he left, “ she says, her voice is getting louder and louder, “he took my face into his hands, squeezed it and said to me, he said, ‘You take care of Ma and Pa.’”

She takes Paula’s face into her hands and yells something at her in Italian, then in English. “’If I don’t come back,’” she says, still squeezing Paula’s face, “‘you take care of Ma and Pa. If something happens to me, you take care of them. You hear’?”

Tears are rolling down Paula’s cheeks so Aunt Cee lets go. She puts her hands in her own lap and looks down at them. “He died and left me with them,” she says in a real low voice. “He died and now I’m stuck here. But I promised. I did.”

Paula wipes the tears off her cheeks and looks over at me and Ted. I don’t know what to do, so I smile at her.

Dad comes into the kitchen and looks at us. We all start eating again. My meal is cold but I know I have to pretend like I’ve been eating the whole time. He comes over and stands behind Aunt Cee. We’re all looking at our plates.

“Cee,” he says in a loud voice. “What are you doing out here?”

She doesn’t answer, just keeps her head down. She crouches at the sound of his voice and I can see her grabbing Paula and Angela’s hands under the table.

“It’s okay Dad,” Angela says, looking up at him. “We’re just talking.”

“Talking? Doesn’t look that way to me. Looks like one person’s doing the talking and everyone else is listening. It’s a holiday. We’re supposed to be happy. What are you doing?” He says to Aunt Cee again.

“It’s all right Dad,” Angela says. “She’s just sad about something.”

“Sad? Hmmph,” he says, then he turns around, walks to the counter and picks up a bottle of wine to take into the other room. “I’ll bet she’s sad. I’ll show you sad. Sad is ruining these kids’ holiday. Look at yourself. Leave it alone, Cee. I mean it. Quit it. It ain’t right. It just ain’t right. You know it. I know you do.”

Aunt Cee nods her head, still looking down.

“Eat up, you kids. There’s plenty more food in here,” he says, going back into the other room. “Remember what I said, Cee.”

“Aunt Cee,” Angela says and puts her arm around Aunt Cee’s shoulders. “He didn’t mean it, probably. Probably he just said it.”

“He meant it,” Aunt Cee says, walking over to the counter and filling her wine glass. “Oh, he meant it. I know.”

She sits back down and starts to fill her plate. We are all eating again. It feels like it’s ended.

“He came to see me,” she says to Angela with her mouth full of food. “He did, Angela. He came to see me—to make sure.”

“Oh, no. Here we go again,” Little Frank says under his breath.

Aunt Cee hears him but ignores it and goes on telling her story. “It was Christmas Eve, a couple years after he died. We were all sitting around the table, just like this, eating our fish supper—but in the other room, of course. I was sitting with my back to the window. All of the sudden, I had this chill. I shivered. It was like a cold pocket of air passed over me. For some reason I don’t know, something made me turn around and look out the window.” She turns around in her chair, like it was that night and she’s looking out the window. “I moved the curtain,” she says, moving her arm like she’s moving the curtain. “I knew something was there. Then I saw it. There it was, standing there looking in the window at me. Calling to me. A pure—pure white—big, beautiful dog. Completely white, he was. Not a speck of any other color on him.” She turns back around to the table and drinks some wine, shaking her head. “No one in the neighborhood had a white dog. I had never seen it before and I never saw it again, except for that one night. And so big! It was tall enough to look into the window. Can you imagine how big? Those eyes—looking at me. They were Ted’s eyes and I knew it. Right then, I knew it was him. I kept looking at him. Just sitting there, looking at him for a long time. Then I said to him, ‘Ted, you came back,’ and he said ‘yes’, he’d come back. He’d come back to make sure, to make sure I’d remembered what he told me.”

Aunt Cee is pounding her fist on the table. She stops and looks up. “And he told me that he was cold and sad and that he missed us all so much. He said he wished so much that he could be there with us, sitting around the table and . . .”

Aunt Cee has to stop telling the story because she is crying too hard. I’m sad for her. That story is creepy. I don’t know if I believe it or not. I can’t stop thinking about it, about that dog. I want to know what happened to it. When she stops crying a little, I ask her. I say, “What happened to the dog, Aunt Cee?”

“I went outside to try and let him in because he told me he was cold. He told me he was cold so I opened the door to let him in but he was gone. There was noting there when I opened the door. He was gone.”

Gram comes out into the kitchen. “You telling that silly story about the dog?” She says. Get outa here! That was no more Ted than I am. Get yourself together. These kids need to eat. This is no way to act on Christmas Eve.”

Aunt Cee stands up and walks, her shoulders all folded up, into the bathroom again.

“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Gram says. “She’s crazy. Finish up eating now. We’ve got other things to do tonight.”

We all obey Gram and start eating. I don’t feel like I want anymore but I know I have to get rid of some of this food on my plate.

“Just some stray, “ she says, “but what a beauty it was. Pure white. I’d never seen a dog like that before. Never have since either. But, it was not my Ted.”

I’ve got the shivers from this whole thing, like it feels like Uncle Ted is here, right now, watching us. I believe what Aunt Cee said about the dog. I don’t know why. I just do. Why would she make something like that up?

“Booooo!” Little Frank yells in my ear, making me jump. I poke him and he pokes me back and we wrestle until Mom comes out and tells us to stop. They must have finished eating in the other room because everyone is coming out here—starting to clean up.

Carmen and Lisa come out and Angela and Paula tell them what’s been going on. They seem to know something I don’t. Guess they’ll fill me in on it later.

When they start to clean our table, little Frank and me check on the squid in the drawer one more time. They’re still in there, but they’re getting hard and stiff. Perfect. We close it back up and run out of the room fast, before someone finds it while we’re still in there.

Later on, when I’m sure no one is looking, I go stare at the picture of Uncle Ted in his uniform, by the manger scene in the living room. “Uncle Ted,” I say, soft into it. “listen, you don’t have to worry. None of us like you any less because of what Aunt Cee said. Really,” I say, getting closer. “You’re still our favorite uncle and if you really can hear me then you know that you need to help Aunt Cee. She’s too sad. Help her, Okay? Thanks,” I say. Then I touch the picture and leave quick before anyone sees.

 

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

 

 

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