"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Dinner – Grand Guignol At Its Operatic Best

Aunt Leona  prepared a great feast every Christmas. Her entire family – sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews – were always delighted with her lasagna, roasted peppers, ham, eggplant parmigiana, and ricotta pies.  Her sisters insisted on contributing, but since Esther was a can-of-this-can-of-that cook who served take out frozen turkey dinners; and since Margaret was a minimalist long before Rene Redzepi, more interested the presentation of her single-sourced beans and trimmed rabbit than anything suitable for fifteen hungry eaters, Angie politely refused.  The offer-refuse-offer-refuse ballet was part of the Season; the sisters expected it; and danced it just like they did when seconds on corn fritters were offered, refused, and offered again.   So Angie did everything herself, cooking for days before Christmas, tired when the day finally came, but happy to bask in the appreciative oohs and ahs after each sumptuous dish and before every new course.

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‘The cousins’, Leona’s nephews by an older brother, spoiled, alternately tolerated and ignored, and therefore nasty, contradictory creatures, were responsible for putting up the tree.  Each year they hacked the nursery’s clean cut ragged, jammed the tree into its stand, loose and barely moored, listing both port and starboard depending on the settling of the house, and threw the ornaments willy-nilly on the few branches that had not been damaged by the brooding cousins’ manhandling.  Uncle Albert strung the lights, his job every Christmas, and he did it carefully in geometrically perfect circumferences around the cracked reindeer, scratched balls, and scruffy, dented Santa Clause ornaments.  No one had checked the lights beforehand, so the lighting of the tree was anticlimactic since half of them were dead and half of the other half flickering or intermittent.

As soon as the tree was up, the presents were arrayed underneath, piles of them, carefully wrapped and ribboned, all containing the same gifts as last year - ties, handkerchiefs, dish towels, pipe tobacco, potholders, scarves, socks, and gloves – but since the gifts themselves didn’t matter, only the ceremonial giving of them, no one cared; so they were stored, repackaged, and re-gifted to the Italian old people’s home on Wooster Square and the orphanage in Derby.

Why Leona insisted on inviting Harry Polli, the next door neighbor, or Lou Ginsberg, a distant relative by marriage to a second or third cousin by marriage to Leona’s husband was beyond anyone.  Harry was a fey, unmarried, schoolteacher who lived with his aged mother who came along with her son to Christmas dinner,  fitted with bib, restraints, and plastic utensils and seated at the end of the table next to her son, who fussed over the old lady from mortadella to nougats, and next to one of the exiled cousins on the other.  Mrs. Polli, who by now knew little of where she was or why she was there, and had any sense of decorum and manners that she might have had, barked and pointed wildly around the table. “You!”, she shouted at Lou Ginsberg the only one at the table she, in the fog of her dementia recognized, “Apostate, faux-rabbinical poseur.  What are you doing here?”.

Harry quieted her with a bit of polenta and gravy, chucked her under the chin, and smiling and happy, she went back to wherever she lived these days which if it hadn’t been for Lou Ginsberg, would have been a permanent, peaceful place of residence.

Leona was generous with the Lambrusco and by the pasta course the house was as noisy as Mamma Gia’s Grotto on Saturday night; and by the time the ham was sliced and served, the cheerful, boozy noise changed tenor – pockets of loud anger here and there, bits and pieces of long-buried stories of spite and jealousy.  The family loved each other out of first generation duty and obligation, hated each other individually. 

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Perhaps it was the Lambrusco, suggested Leona, or perhaps being family gave license to the insults and personal attacks that would be grounds for civil action anywhere else; but Christmas dinner brought out the worst in everyone except Leona who kept repeating, smiling “They’re family”. It was a wonder they all came back for more each year, knowing what was in store.  Leona did her best to plan the seating accordingly.  Old Lady Polli was always at the end of the table and would be until she died; and she, Leona would be at the head where she rightfully belonged, but everyone else was rearranged each year.  Those who fought one year might have made up the next, and those who had shared polite stories might well be vicious, vindictive enemies.  Leona, although she hated gossip, had to rely on it for her seating chart. If all the relatives saw fit to keep coming to Christmas dinner, then it was up to her to orchestrate the best possible result.  No loud trumpets next to the tympani.

The family pictured in Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving Day painting was definitely not Italian; but probably wasn’t Irish or Jewish either.  In fact, given the nature of families, it had to be Rockwell’s lovely idea, an image of what family gatherings were supposed to be, not what they actually were.

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If we are to believe our most respected authors and playwrights, the Leona family was one of courtesy and decorum compared to O’Neill’s Mannon family who were jealous, incestuous, plotting, and murderous.  Or his Tyrone family with three drunken men and a drug-addled wife all fighting old battles.  The sons, wayward and emotionally dependent and derelict, fought old childhood battles with their father and resented their mother.  Lilian Hellman’s Giddens and Hubbard families were after each other’s money and influence.  Tennessee Williams’ Pollitt family were all salivating, waiting for Big Daddy to die so they could inherit his vast wealth.  Goneril and Regan were out to destroy their father, King Lear to get his kingdom.  Ursula and Gudrun sisters in Lawrence’s Women in Love, have no love lost for each other or their parents. Tamora, Queen of the Amazons incites her sons to rape Titus Andronicus’ daughter and to cut off her limbs and tongue to keep her from talking.  The Loman and Carbone families are as dysfunctional as they come, and so is every other of Arthur Miller’s plays. The list is endless.

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If there is a Norman Rockwell, and if Hallmark cards exist, then there must be happy families, or so goes the Christmastime carol; but if we are to trust Shakespeare, O’Neill, Williams and everyone else who wrote about families, then they are as scarce as hen’s teeth.  Many families can be intact except for one irritating burr – an unintended insult never forgotten; an unobserved slight; a misstep, a misstatement – and manage to forget the irrigation when they are together.  Others, like Leona’s can’t hide their resentments, vendettas, or hostilities for love nor money.  As Leona herself suggested, there was something permissive about her Christmas dinners and maybe about herself.

Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a powerful drama of pathos and tragedy, ends with Willy Loman realizing that in his search for meaning has been carried out in all the wrong places.  In the end he realizes that his son, despite Willy’s delusions, infidelities, misrepresentations, and absences, loves him; and so does his wife who says about her husband, “Attention must be paid”.

Edward Albee was no fan of families, and in each one of his plays, he explores the depths of mistrust, jealousy, and misunderstanding that always occur within them.  Yet, as he concludes in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, marriage and families are the crucibles of maturity.  Only by living cheek-by-jowl with wives, husbands, sons, and daughters and struggling with them, can one every understand life itself.

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So Leona’s Christmas dinners served a purpose, although by the end of the day she always vowed that it would be her last.  Maybe her Christmas dinners were no different than George and Martha’s late night drinks with Nick and Honey – awful, spiteful, horrible affairs but without which they would never ‘get down to the marrow’, strip away all pretense and chicanery and see who they each were and what they were together.

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