Christmas Birthday Literary Tales
From “Siren’s Feast, An Edible Odyssey”
by Nancy Mehagian
“Don’t you dare have that baby today, Florence, and ruin our dinner,” my Aunt Mary admonished my mother, waggling her finger in my mother’s direction. Christmas is the most important holiday of the year for an Armenian family and dinner is usually so delicious–stuffed grape leaves, roast turkey, buttery rice pilaf, salads, pumpkin pie, delicate pastry and thick black coffee served at the end of the meal–no one wants to miss a single dish of the feast.
Aunt Mary was the family matriarch so my mother did as she was told, sitting quietly on the couch as though genetically programmed to obey and to please. Shortly after my parents returned home my mother went into labor. At 4:00 a.m. my father drove her to the hospital. I was born at noon, exactly, on December 26. I’m convinced I wanted to spring forth like a grand gift and having been made to wait developed a certain impulsiveness. I became the wild child of the family–animated, curious, naughty. Hyperactive is what I would have been called if that label existed in my youth. From my earliest memories I was constantly being compared to my older brother Richard, who, according to my mother, was perfect. The apocryphal story my mother tells about Richard is how she once gave him a Hershey bar telling him he could not eat it until he had finished his dinner, and that he fell asleep with the chocolate melting in his little hand. I never exercised such restraint.
[The culinary memoir is an award-winning finalist in the National Best Books 2008 Awards. More information is at http://www.sirensfeast.com/]
Our Christmas Birthday Tradition
by Jolene Rae Harrington
My cousin Beatrice Quartucci was the family matriarch. She was born on Christmas Day some 70+ years ago, so it seems natural that her life would be all about giving. Besides the volunteer work and church activities for which she was known, Bea had a quiet way of being there for others—whether it was as godmother to numerous children or the kind listener to lonely friends as far away as Sweden. When I went to the hospital to visit my own mother who lay in a coma, I would find fresh-cut gardenias on her nightstand, and I’d know that Bea had been there, too. My mother—her best friend—finally passed on, and Bea gently and consistently supplied the maternal understanding that I so missed.
Christmas Day at Cousin Bea’s was legendary. Her parents were Italian immigrants, so the holiday get-together was naturally a noisy, boisterous affair that centered around a delicious feast. Bea would always say the same thing—“I’m going to keep it simple this year,” but the result was nothing short of royal in its abundance and quality. I used to love to bring friends to Christmas dinner and watch the look on their faces as course after course was brought to the overladen table. I remember one couple who had eaten their fill of stuffed eggs, antipasti, shrimp cocktail, spinach dip, and sundry other morsels only to discover that what they thought was the meal were merely the appetizers! My husband, of German heritage, couldn’t understand why the Christmas turkey and rib roast was served with sides of penne and sausage in marinara sauce. “Just eat,” I said. And we did.
It didn’t seem right that Bea would have to work so hard when it was her birthday, but it was useless to get her to sit down until everybody else was served. Inevitably she would apologize for forgetting to make this dish or that, as if anyone might go away hungry because of the absence of peas or raviolis. During the meal, we teased each other, caught up on the latest gossip between mouthfuls and inevitably asked questions about our family’s history. Bea would describe her grandparents’ trip over from Sicily, how my Grandpa was born on the boat, how the five brothers became estranged and how pretty Aunt Nellie died so young. Bea knew what happened to every fourth cousin or New York uncle. She was the keeper of our stories, the guardian of our family identity and Christmas dinner was always special because of her.
We passed around presents right at the table, over pumpkin pie and biscotti, thoughtful items, fun tokens that carried with them our affection. We always remembered to get Bea a separate gift for her birthday. I even made sure NOT to wrap it in holiday paper or bows. I felt this was an important distinction, and I hope she noticed.
There was one Christmas we didn’t get together as usual. It was the Christmas Bea’s mother, my great-aunt Josie, passed away. It seemed a cruel irony, to mar not only the holiday but also the anniversary of Bea’s birth, as if she was doomed always to have the shadow of other’s fall across her own happiness. Indeed, her life wasn’t easy, so I am happy at least that her death was as effortless as can be.
She’d been Christmas shopping, a year ago, and she was showing off her purchases to one of her sons, Vince. She sat down on the couch to rest, took a breath and just fell over. It must have been as gentle as the flapping of butterfly wings as her soul moved from this world to the next. It’s our only comfort in her loss.
Christmas will always remind me of my cousin Beatrice, a Christmas baby who represents what’s best about the holiday season—sharing, giving and family.