A Little Slice of the Family Pie
I grew up in Bremerton, Washington. Bremerton is a small Navy community about twenty water-miles from Seattle. It was, when I lived there, nothing more than a town with two high schools, one baseball field and a dozen or so mothballed old battleships littering the water that surrounded it. Bremerton had its 15- minutes of fame back in the 1980’s when they filmed “An Officer and a Gentleman” there. Everybody was proud but me, I found the way they portrayed our town embarrassing.
Growing up I always felt our holidays were pretty typical — or so I thought until I moved away and spent a few holidays with other people’s families.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were great big get-togethers with every relation gathering at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house. We, the grandchildren, wore our new holiday duds. I always had a red or green dress, hair in pigtails, leotards and a new pair of patent leathers. My older brother wore a felt vest that my mother made. It had a cutout and glued train across the front of it. I don’t know what he resents more, the fact that he had to wear it back then, or that everybody now looking at the old pictures laughs at him. This might help explain why to this day he doesn’t speak to anyone in our family.
We usually arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s at around one or two and dinner was always set for about four o’clock. I can’t remember it ever coming off on time, or without a conflagration of some sort. One year the electricity went out, another my aunt Sylvie had a baby, right there on the living room rug.
By the time we got to the two-story brick house my grandma and great-grandma were already in the kitchen. Pots were boiling, the windows were steamy, and Otto, their obese weenie dog, was under foot hoping for a scrap to fall his way. I don’t know why that big fat dog was such a beggar. Every day for breakfast and dinner he was served a big bowl of dog food that my grandmother would mix with baby cereal, cover with gravy and then heat up for him.
Each holiday there were between forty and fifty persons total. Thirteen or so grandchildren (yes, we sat at card tables in the kitchen) and the rest a mixed bag of adults, geriatrics and a few strays that my grandfather brought home from his corner hang-out, The Red Rooster. It seems The Red Rooster didn’t serve a holiday dinner along with all that Schlitz Malt Liquor.
Grandma Donnie (short for Daniela), backed-up by my mother, and a few other women would scold my grandpa out on the back porch in hushed voices: “You do this every year; you bring these drunks to our home.” We (the cousins) were crazy about those loveable and funny characters that our grandmother despised. There was “Shorty,” “Lefty” and “Luther,” all appropriately nicknamed except Luther, whose proper name was Luther. Lefty had a bad limp, and Shorty was…well, you already guessed, not too tall. Luther was spared the nickname, for it would have been far too cruel to call him anything but Luther. You see, somehow he had lost his tongue. My grandpa told us that it happened in the war and we saw no reason to question it.
As the day progressed more relatives arrived, along with more cousins ensuring the promise of a great crab apple fight out back in the alley. While the women migrated to the kitchen where there was a lot of laughing, swearing and wine drinking, the men instinctually took their places in the living room. There the football game, which was turned up way too loud took center stage, Side tables held such appetizers as celery stuffed with olive pimento cheese, smoked oysters and chips with dip. Keep in mind; these are the type of people who thought nothing of double-dipping (something that even as a child I was completely against). With the adults preoccupied upstairs, we liked to hang out in the basement where Grandpa kept the liquor and his Playboy magazines. One at a time we took turns standing watch at he door while the others passed a bottle of Coke spiked with Everclear around.
In grandma’s dining room there was a beautiful oak table extended to seat twenty, and another smaller table which seated about 10. The tables were set with Grandma’s beautiful Spode Rosebud Chintz dishes, her ruby red water glasses and her best silver. There were tapered candles on the table and cut glass bowls overflowing with black olives, sweet baby gherkins and those sweet pickled beets that come in a jar. To this day those beets are still my favorite.
Lefty and Luther sat with us kids at card tables in the kitchen but Shorty was always invited to sit out with the adults. I think it was because every year he gave the blessing. This was usually a long-winded list of gratitude and love that always ended with “Our dear ol’ Ireland.”
The cousins and I liked Lefty and Luther sitting with us. Our mothers did not however, and routinely popped their heads through the swinging doors to check on us. My cousin Eli would fire a litany of questions at Luther (the guy with no tongue) just to get him to talk. We couldn’t understand a single word he said, and we were way too afraid to laugh. After all, he supposedly lost it in the war. We would try and hold our giggles in and if that didn’t work we would pretend that we were laughing at the dog. Another reason we liked Lefty and Luther was because they, too, hung out in the basement. They drank Grandpa’s booze and looked at his magazines right along with us.
And they kept our secret.
The meal was traditional: bird, stuffing, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings. Every year my Aunt Sissy brought her “candied yams with rum.” I’m not sure which contained more rum, the yams or Aunt Sissy. She was an old lady with lots of make-up, the one everyone avoided because she insisted on kissing everyone on the lips.
After dinner the dishes were quickly cleared, the plates scraped and the tables were broken down and put away until the next holiday. The women would go back to the kitchen and the hour-long cleanup would begin. The men, all swell-bellied and half-baked, were flaked out across every available couch, loveseat and bed in the house.
Once again, the kids would quietly assemble in the basement, for it was time for Grandpa to wrestle the dog. After he was sure that Grandma was well into the cleanup process and wouldn’t be distracted, my grandpa would come downstairs and quietly lock the door behind him. We would be waiting for him with big grins on our faces. He would have Otto’s dish in his hand and Otto, of course, was right behind him jumping and snapping at his bowl.
Very ceremoniously, Grandpa would place the dish on a ledge above the fireplace. He would slowly remove his shirt, fold it in half and hang it over the back of a chair. He would carefully take out his teeth and place them on the ledge next to the dog dish. By this time we were all so excited…and so was Otto, snorting and jumping wildly at his dish. Besides, Otto knew the drill. He had wrestled the old man more than a time or two.
To this day I have a vivid memory of exactly how my grandpa looked with his shirt off. Of course, he was all loose and hangy, but mostly he was white—pure white. The man had skin the color of a hard-boiled egg, and it was smooth, too — not a hair on him.
In one quick move, Grandpa would swoop down, grab Otto and throw the drooling dog to the ground. We would almost wet our pants laughing and screaming at them. Grandpa would roll on top of Otto and then Otto would roll on top of Grandpa. It was just like he was wrestling an alligator. Out of breath, he would yell, “get your feet up, kids, watch your toes, get up off the floor.” We would jump to the couch, grab our feet, and clench our knees under our chins.
After two or three more near-wins by Otto, Grandpa would pin Otto with one arm and slap his hand on the mat with the other. It was over! Grandpa once again beat the fat old dog. Otto did however usually get in a good nip or two, and Grandpa would later proudly parade around the room flexing his muscles and showing everyone where he got bit.
“A hundred and eighty pounds of speed, guts and muscle,” he would shout over all our screaming and applause.
By the time it quieted down enough to hear the pounding on the basement door, Grandpa had already put his teeth back in, dressed, and calmed Otto enough to give him his pablum. On the other side of the door would be Grandma Donnie and my mother (her deputy). We all got yelled at and sent outside to calm down. Grandpa would once again get summoned to the back porch for another scolding, and poor Otto had to stay in the basement by himself because he was so worked up.
Oh well, it was time for the crab apple fight anyway.
A few years ago, flipping through TV channels, I stumbled across a World Wrestling Federation match, and I realized how deftly my grandfather executed the fakery and drama required to pull off his wrestling matches with Otto. Since the time I was a little girl I have been told how much I take after my grandfather.
I guess I should have taken a job with the circus when I had the chance instead of being a cook.
[Published 2009, San Diego Metropolitan Magazine]