(Santa) Claustrophobic Christmas by Sydney Rodriguez
Every Christmas Eve, my entire family-my fourteen cousins and my nine aunts and uncles, along with their spouses-head toward my grandparent’s cramped apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut, all from various distances throughout Connecticut. Immediately upon entering, the familiar sizzling sounds of dinner and the decadent aromas wafting in the air overwhelm your senses. And suddenly you become aware of your tremendous hunger.
Just a few minutes prior, my mother wedged her burgundy Lexus between two decrepit cars, one with its bumper attached to the car via Duct Tape, the other with a plethora of crude stickers plastered on the trunk. We scanned the road cautiously for any oncoming cars, and when the road was momentarily clear, we dashed across, burying our faces in our jacket linings for a shield against the bitter wind.
My mother gently pulled open the fence around the slate blue painted house.
Just to the left of us lay a garden. Then being the apogee of winter, the once prospering flowers were buried deep in grey snow.
We hopped up the steps which creaked and moaned with our weight. My sister, Taylor, knocked with urgency on the front door. And when no answer preceded, she grasped the cold doorknob and turned her hand. And as always, the door was unlocked.
A soft yellow light illuminated the staircase and hallway which led to their apartment door. The floorboards whined with each step. As we approached their doorway, we could hear the faint hum of music and muffled laughter radiating through the door. The door was unlocked yet again.
And then, we stood in the center of the living room, bombarded with embraces and questions.
¨Taylor, how tall are you now?¨ everyone inquiried despite her being the same height as the past three years of five feet, ten inches.
¨Sydney, what grade are you in now?” despite me still being in the same grade I had been in during Thanksgiving.
My grandmother must have heard the commotion because she strode in from the kitchen, her spatula in hand. She saw us and smiled, and proceeded to give us all hugs, before hustling back to the kitchen.
And shortly after, my grandfather shuffled in, equipped with his cane and his overpowering aroma of cigars and red wine, which behind his back we dilute with Sprite. He embraced us as well, only with one arm of course, careful to keep all of his drink in the glass.
After he waltzed back to his chair at the head of the table, and upon sitting, emitted a deep-rooted sigh.
For just a few minutes we all sat together on the grey sectional, silenced by our gnawing hunger. We sat mesmerized by the ramblings of the Portuguese News Channel anchor.
The majority of my aunts and uncles were born in Portugal, including my mother. Their house lay in the north of Portugal, just a few miles from the border to Spain. My mother told my sister and me stories of racing her siblings all the way to the border and back.
Nearly all of my cousins spoke the language fluently as well, from staying at this apartment while their parents worked.
I had just about given up trying to interpret when I heard the familiar shuffling of my grandmother’s signature black mesh Chinese slippers.
The conversations around me hushed as my aunts began to carry out dishes of food and place them on the side table against the window.
“Kids, first!” they announced simultaneously, though we had already lined up, clutching our plates and our silverware wrapped elegantly in a napkin.
I piled up my food with nearly every dish, with the exception of the fish. Mountains of creamy mashed potatoes, chicken with a variety of sauces, homemade pasta, a Portuguese roll with a wad of butter, steak, paella, and a forkful of salad to please my mom.
Clenching my plate, I navigated through the sea of relatives to find a seat at the light oak table, tinted yellow with decades of relentless use.
The table itself is as old as the apartment. And with just one look at it, I was suddenly flooded with memories of crawling around the table legs while playing hide-and-seek with my cousins. The intricate design of the table legs reminded me of the woods behind my house.
There was a floral tablecloth atop the table, with a thick plastic sheet over for protection. And, in the center of the table lay a gaudy flower pot with a display of fake flowers with absurdly unrealistic colors.
Embedded into the far wall, bordering the kitchen, lay a cupboard, filled with cups and mugs and silverware. It is painted the same mocha brown color as the floorboards.
And in the corner of the room, lay a glass cabinet filled with delicate glasses, as well as an array of mugs with pictures of each grandchild as a baby. Seeing them all together, perched on a high shelf, we are completely indistinguishable. All with the same chocolate brown eyes and broad toothless grins. The only way to differentiate us is by the thick, bold font below inscribing our names.
All around me, we took turns telling stories and jokes. The melodious sound of laughter filled me with an exhilarated feeling.
Christmas has always been my absolute favorite holiday. Ever since I was younger, I always associated Christmas Eve with my grandmother’s house, with never ending trays of food, with my family. Though I tried to shove the thought out of my head, all I could think about was what my mother had told me beforehand.
“This is going to be our last Christmas Eve at grandma’s house, okay? Her doctors told her she can’t have the stress of planning, as well as being on her feet all day to host,” she said with even increments of time before and after each word.
Even though I knew that someone else in my family would begin to host Christmas Eve, it would never be the same.
The entire night, time moved much faster than it usually seemed to. The fleeting of time was difficult to ignore with the persistent metronome of the clock’s hands ticking.
Despite the elaborate buffet of food, which could quite easily feed the entire city, my grandmother, equipped with her constant need to feed people, made her rounds with her signature blue metallic tray of shortbread cookies. Even though they were always very dry, and chalky, we always ate them anyways, just to see the smile on her face.
After eating, and after conversations, we retreated back to the living room. A few of my aunts began clearing the table surface of dishes. One of my uncles found the remote between the couch cushions, and changed to some Christmas movie channel.
The movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, had just transitioned into the opening scene with beautifully rendered snowflakes falling from the sky, and the tranquil baritone of the narrator describing the world within the snowflake.
Somehow we all managed to sit somewhat comfortably on the separated settees, some of us strewn along the arms of the seat.
Instead of us all deluging toward the table in the dining room, my grandmother and aunts shambled towards the ivory colored ottoman in the center of the room, carrying trays of cupcakes, cookies, brownies, and cakes and pies.
Careful not to block the television, my grandmother cut the cake and pies agily into small constituents and swept the slice onto one of the paper plates. She simply extended her arm and there was always another hand reaching out for the plate.
Like a wave, the acerbic scent of freshly brewed coffee wafted toward us. And, almost immediately following, streams of my grandmother’s helpers entered through the wide entryway, carrying multiple coffee cups in each hand.
Munching away at our desserts, and the adults inhaling their coffee, we proceed to watch the duration of the film.
The night sky’s deep blue slowly melted into a black oblivion. The crescent moon’s light was completely shrouded by charcoal clouds, which themselves were difficult to distinguish, juxtaposed with the blackness around them.
My younger cousins began to yawn. And as the movie credits roll in, I knew the night was over.
While helping to tidy up the apartment, I became aware that the following day would bring yet another family gathering. Where we would all sport the new clothes and accessories we received, and exchange gifts. With this remembrance, my nostalgic feelings transformed to familiar feelings of anticipation.
All traditions eventually come to an end, however, I suddenly realized that the tradition was never to come to my grandparent’s house on Christmas Eve, the tradition was simply to unite as a family on Christmas Eve, regardless of the venue.
And after the apartment was as immaculate as it once was, I said goodbye to my departing aunts. And before my family left as well, I embraced my grandmother to express how much I love her, even though I do not know the words to say to her in the language she speaks.
She cradled my face in her hands and grins, then pulls me in for one last hug. She does the same for my sister and my mom. Then, we shrugged into our coats and left.
The arctic air was as inhospitable as before as we waddled to the car. My mother shimmied the car out and drove off. But before, I glanced out to the house, which had become graphite in color. Though it saddened me to leave, I knew I would be back.