Excerpted from the novel Holy Days
A thousand Christmas mornings, grey and chill, we hustled out of our warm, cooking house for the adventure of visiting a million friends and relatives Daddy took us on a drunken path to see. Every Sunday, the many neighbors and relatives came to our house, one by one, or sometimes, in droves, for ours was a cooking house, a bustling house with both doors open, but today was Christmas Day, the day we went out to visit. Mama stayed home in a holiday ruffly apron to cook Christmas dinner. At the door she waved good-bye and mournfully instructed Daddy, “Don’t drink too much! Say Merry Christmas to my mother, mmm,” she moaned, releasing as she did a glorious deluge of scents into the freezing Christmas Day led by Bell’s seasonings that had seeped round and through the turkey’s stuffed with savories breast.
“My turkey has a name,” Mama liked to tease the hundreds of little kids who came each year to witness Mama’s frozen, naked turkey coming out of the Stop & Shop bag and going into the alternate freezer down cellar. “See!” Mama pointed a fat finger to the turkey’s label, “Jenny O’Young Tom! That’s its name! Jenny O’Young Tom!” Hundreds of kids nodded sagely, though none could decide, and there was much argument over, whether it was a “Jenny” or a “Tom.”
I did not want to leave her. But, the adventure of visiting called out to me.
I left the roasting of meat, a primitive and gratifying aroma like no other, deep and juicy, stuffed and fat. Mysterious, unlike a summer barbeque which is an open, communal smell on the warm breeze, the Christmas roast is privately accomplished, secreted away in the ovens, communally secret, delightfully wafting out as jingling, shouting doors open in welcome. I left behind the simmering of richest, holiday tomato sauce, using pork and beef, peppers and onion, garlic and oregano and basil all at once; the deep dish lasagna or manicotti; hidden also, beside the bulging turkey, hidden, the potatoes in silvery wrap, roasting, the yams beside them; roasting, the squash, melting into buttery warmth; cranberry jelly cut out of a can; celery to dip in olive oil and black pepper; green and crispy salada and afterwards, vanilla cookies, spread with frosting that Mama spent a whole day making; anise wheels like stained glass windows; walnut snowballs frosted with snowy soft sugar; pies: pumpkin, apple, squash and Daddy’s favorite, mince (Yuck! Too sharp!): honey balls like tiny donuts you had to fish for in golden lakes of honey; chocolate bulbs wrapped in Christmassy colored foil and a hugest bowl of nuts to crack and raisins to squish in your mouth melted with chocolate and red wine, all at once, wine and chocolate, raisin and nut meat melted and mingled in your Christmassy mouth. All these, following me out the door in a wave of sweet and spicy, warm and roasted, all these I left behind to go out into the grey Christmas Day. Grey and damp, holding Daddy’s hand, studying my new, white plastic boots. Marie was skipping and wandering on his other hand, while he jerked us straight in order to cross the cold street, blackened with drizzle, pocked with black pocky snow, and yellow snow even Annette wouldn’t eat, a piece of stray tinsel caught in a black pock, shivering wildly in the wind.
Jakey walked by himself.
The Likus’ was the first stop. Annie opened the door for us, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” She said to each of our heads passing her as she held the storm door.
“Ho, ho, ho!” Daddy responded, “An’ a Hap, Hap, Happy New Year!”
We entered the dark house, along the dark hallway; so dark I couldn’t find the floor. My feet stepped down and down into nothingness, stepping and stepping as on numbed feet. I followed Daddy blindly down the dark walls in utter trust and horror, to the kitchen, only slightly less dim than the hall. I was met there by a damp kitcheny smell, warm and clammy, like watery meat. It was not a cooking house.
“Can I get you something to warm your bones, Billy?”
“Don’t mind if I do!” was Daddy’s reply at every house, “Don’t mind if I do!”
What amazed me was how happy they all were; everywhere we went, to see Daddy! How happy they were to set his whiskey down in a simple kitchen glass in front of him!
“Over the teeth and through the gums, look out stomach, here it comes!” he sang happily.
He made me cringe. But, when I saw the beaming faces around him, Annie, in her new Christmas robe of bright red polyester quilting and Richard, in his flappy socks and workpants, beaming like Christmas stars upon him, I thought they were fools, and, instantly, I felt proud to be with him, foolishly proud to be of the same name, from the same house, the Wisher house, labeled with him, wrapped up, cooked like the turkey, smelling of him, through the wet, stifling wool of my mittens, through my skin, spices, tobacco, whiskey: I was with him.
“You should never sit next to a man,” he whispered in my ear, his scratchy stubble burning my ear, while he lay next to me in the dark..., “You shouldn’t be allowed in the same room with a man.”
“Hey! Gloria! Come and see what we got!” called a far off voice from the living room, Annette’s taunting voice.
“Go play,” Daddy told me, over his shoulder.
Marie followed me. Jakey was gone already, upstairs with Rick. They had a way of disappearing before anyone even knew they were around.
At the threshold of the living room, I stumbled over gifts falling out of their opened boxes. Gifts filled the living room as if a gift dump truck had backed up to the house and dropped its load through the living room windows.
I couldn’t see a thing beyond the sea of tissue paper. The vague shape of a Christmas tree blotted the dark window. Gradually, I could distinguish the shapes of boxes overflowing with scarves and hats and mittens that matched; sweaters with angora puffs, sweaters with turtle necks; sweaters of varied colors: gossamer pink, deep purple, dark red, green, neon yellow with pants and skirts to match; and toys and toys and toys; dolls advertised on TV (I never got any of the dolls I saw on TV, though I begged for them.); games in boxes rattling with promise, Scrabble, Monopoly, Miss Popularity; Mr. Potatohead thrust in my face; Barbie furniture, pink and smelling delightfully of brand new plastic. A doll wobbled toward me, ZZ-ZZ-ZZ, she went, till Rick, out of nowhere threw a new basketball at her and she fell over on to her back, smack into tissue and wrapping paper, still ZZ-ZZ-ZZ waving her legs.
“Aw!” cried Coreen, Richard’s mother, so fat she couldn’t move, out of the depths of a stuffed chair buried in the corner, nearly scaring me to death.
“What did you get?” Annette asked me.
“Boots,” I said, holding up one white plastic foot.
“That all?” she laughed.
What could I say? No, that’s not all. I got new soft flannel pajamas we always wear on Christmas Eve to have new ones for Santa to see. I got a new pink eraser and a box of Number 2 pencils, like in school. And paper books, some with lines for writing, some with no lines for drawing. And a thing of Scotch tape, all my own; actually, Ma never bought Scotch tape, she couldn’t afford it, she bought some other kind, but she called it Scotch anyway.
“What did she get?” Annette nodded over to Marie.
“Show her,” I said. Marie lifted the nondescript doll she was holding and Annette blew spit through her teeth.
Coreen laughed from her shadowy chair.
Daddy was standing behind us.
“You kids ready? Look at all the presents! Are these for me?”
He reached down and put a girl’s pink and white knit cap on his head. It sat way up on top, suddenly looking like a doll’s cap.
Annette and Linda, Coreen, Rick and Jakey all laughed real loud.
“Give me your tongue,” he whispered, hot, in my ear.
“What?” I whispered back.
“Put your tongue in my mouth.”
“What’s the matter? Don’t I look pretty?” More laughter.
“Well, were shovin’ off!” Daddy called out. “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
As we filed out, down the dim hallway, I wondered how long before I would have to use that bright new eraser, how long before I’d have to use those perfect new pencils, how much longer could I keep them fresh and untouched?
©Patricia Goodwin, 2016
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation.