Holiday traditions follow us throughout our lifetime. Some we keep. Some we expand upon. Some we change. The thing that doesn’t change is the way our holidays made us feel especially as we grew up.
During the holidays, my mom Shirley pulled out all the stops. She put a red bow on everything. The house was decorated throughout including the faux brick heater fireplace. It was the 70s so everything was plastic and affixed with the small tiny bows.
To this day, I have a few of my mom’s plastic wreaths. Carefully placed on the early American hutch once my mother’s, they make my heart light. They still have a slight twinge of cigarette smoke from many years of exposure.
My dad passed away when I was 9 so my mom played the role of both parents. Every year after his passing, my mother would tell my brothers and I that she was “cutting back.” That meant, instead of 14 gifts each, we could expect well, 14 gifts each.
I had only one request. As a spoiled self-absorbed 14-year-old, I begged my mom not to shop at KMART. One year as I unwrapped a multitude of clothing items that delighted my fashionista senses, my mother looked at me and asked, “DO YOU KNOW WHY you LOVE them so much?” Wait for it. Wait for it. Looking at her quizzically and before I could respond, she paused dramatically and emphatically responded, “Because they’re FROM KMARTTTTT.”
When it came to holiday parties, as an entertainer, my mother was all about setting the right mood. With her right wrist flexed back while delicately balancing a lit cigarette she’d tell me, “Jeanne, you ALWAYS want low lighting. Have lots of candles around and keep the lights down – especially in the kitchen. That way people stay late into the night. You want to give it that party feel.” Whenever I’m hosting an evening soiree, the lights are low and tee-lights are everywhere. Besides, who doesn’t look good in low lighting?
I loved the way my mother’s house was the gathering place. We looked forward to a house full of family, neighbors, and a few friends who were slightly unconventional. My mom was a musician so her circle attracted people who were outgoing, talented and often times hilarious.
My house was more like a jazz club than it was a traditional home. Either way, it sure was full of fun and laughter. Friends with instruments showed up and that included my “adopted” relatives. Family friends were often times referred to as Uncle this and Aunt that. At least 20 “aunts and uncles” were not blood related.
One adopted family included my “Aunt Nina,” my “Uncle Freddy,” and their “Uncle Marty.” Uncle Marty played the saxophone and seemed to be about 90 years old. Thin, no taller than 4 feet 5 inches, and slightly hunched over at the waist, Uncle Marty ran around the house with that saxophone as if he was the star in a Broadway musical. If our house were a circus act, he’d be in the center ring.
As my mother played the piano, Uncle Marty moved about the room gyrating as his sax flew up and down wildly flailing about. He played slightly off key to the jazz version of Jingle Bells. At some point, friends and family formed a conga line and danced behind him. Oh what fun we had!
Before the music even started, Uncle Freddy, a dentist by profession, greeted the occasional new guest with a set of professionally designed “Billy-bob” teeth that protruded straight out. My mother adored these candid-camera moments when she could introduce Freddy as a family friend. Often over-acting, my mother wasn’t very good at playing it straight. “Hello come on in. I’d want to introduce you my friend Freddie,” she’d coo. She could barely contain herself.
Freddie would then appear out of nowhere with his “fake teeth” and an outstretched hand. He appeared to be thrilled to meet the new unwitting guest. My brothers and I cackled in the background waiting for the expected hilarious reaction of shock, disbelief, and then belly laughter.
This annual party lasted every Christmas evening until I was about 19 years old and then things began to change. My mom was getting older, my brothers and I were spending more time with our friends, and things changed. While they changed, one thing didn’t, the way my mom lit up the room at the holidays and made everyone feel welcome and loved.
I have her red bows. I have her plastic wreaths. I have her affection for making people laugh – sometimes even in a shocking way. Most of all, I have her tradition of making people feel loved and welcome. Happy holidays mom and to all those who believe in love, laughter, and low lighting.
Look for Jeanne’s book and memoir, I see old People®, to come out in 2021. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram too.
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