The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Dec 19, 2012
By Thom Nickels
Christmas is always a time to think about friends and loved ones who are no longer with us. I’m thinking especially about relatives long gone, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and maybe even siblings. No matter how old we get I think that most of us remember the faces of relatives we knew as children. As I think back to my own deceased relatives my only regret is that I never got to know them well as people because I was either too young or too involved in my own growing pains to get a sense of who they really were.
Most of my Christmases growing up had the flavor of an old Saturday Evening Post cover. There was the traditional lap talk with Santa Claus, the decoration of the house, going out to a tree farm to select a tree and then cutting it down before tying it to the roof of the car and going home for hot chocolate. There was the experience of putting up the Manger on the living room mantle, always my mother’s favorite task because she’d surround it with boughs and ferns that filled the house with the scent of pine and holly. Then, of course, there was the planning of the mammoth Christmas dinner, which usually started in our house at 4 o’clock with cocktails, shrimp cocktail, and various cheeses, followed by a formal dinner: table centerpiece, lots of candles, white tablecloth and matching napkins, the best silverware, and name cards with fancy designs.
Growing up, on Christmas Eve we’d head out to the traditional Midnight Mass when it was a High Solemn affair, filled with chants, processions, Latin and incense. Christmas was a time of ceremony and beauty and the idea was to do everything in a big way.
Before Christmas dinner, there was usually fresh fruit cocktail as an appetizer, a variety of breads, red and white wine, and then a full course spread. Dinner began with grace and invocation by Grandfather Nickels, a retired architect who loved dressing to the nines while puffing on Cuban cigars. He’d speak in a slow and melodious voice so that his words sounded like an official address. He’d usually tell a story after saying grace, like the time he told us how as a boy he used to watch the iceman cart big blocks of ice into the kitchen icebox in his parents’ home in Manayunk.
I always felt a unique tie to Grandfather because his wife—my grandmother—and another aunt were both killed when the car they were riding in stalled on trolley tracks near Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Tragically, a trolley then hit the car, but the accident spared Grandfather, who was also a passenger. I’ve always felt a connection to this tragedy because they were coming to my parents’ house to celebrate my sixth birthday. Waiting at home for their arrival, I remember answering the incoming call from an aunt, another survivor, and hearing: "Tommy, Tommy, get your mother!"
In those days, people thought nothing of smoking indoors, so by dessert time the dining room would be filled with the aroma of cigar, pipe and cigarette smoke. Sometimes the dining room was so smoky it looked like a great cloud had descended over the table. My aunts had elaborate cigarette cases to match their small jeweled pill boxes. I used to love to watch them take their medication out after dinner, opening and shutting the boxes with a snap and then ingesting the tiny pills quickly, as if they felt a measure of guilt. It seemed to me then that all old people took pills for aliments that were rarely visible. But I never saw my grandfather take a pill. More often than not, he’d just ask for a glass of BB and light up another cigar.
By dinner’s end, the formality that marked the beginning of the meal was gone. It was a time when the family could relax in the living room, as the male French poodle owned by my father’s brother would make his leg-humping rounds. This was usually the funniest time of the evening. Christmas also meant after-dinner chocolates, fancy liqueurs and endless cups of coffee. It was really the happiest of times, when even the kids were allowed to take a wee sip of Christmas wine.
But one Christmas dinner was not so happy.
It was the Christmas my mother told Grandfather to take a hike. Needless to say, we were all shocked, but what could we do? We were children and had no say in the matter.
What upset my mother was the way Grandfather pushed my youngest brother David away from him when David ran and jumped onto his lap. David was developmentally disabled or what they used to call mentally retarded. When he died at age 31 he had the mentality of a three year old, although physically he looked like a normal guy.
David had a habit of rushing towards family members and then collapsing in their laps, a gymnastic style maneuver that tended to mess up neatly pressed clothing. Grandfather, unfortunately, had a habit of keeping my brother at arm’s length, and it took this one incident to cause my mother to lose her Tyrone County Irish temper in one Hiroshima blast that resulted in her telling Pop-Pop to take his things and go back home.
I felt bad because I liked Grandfather’s second wife, a woman we just called Nana, who was gracious to a fault although being Grandfather’s wife, what could she do?
Soon after Christmas, my mother forgave Grandfather and invited him and Nana over for a makeup meal on a Sunday. They ironed out the issue and came to a new understanding. I don’t know whether both sides took a share of the blame, but whatever was said managed to heal the hurt forever.
The lesson I took away from this is that no personal family schism has to be permanent. There is always a chance for forgiveness and a chance to start anew if both parties care enough to sit down and talk things out. In other words, holding on to a grudge and being unwilling to forgive can be a deadly thing.
Christmas the following year went on without a hitch, although I think David managed to spill Nana’s coffee towards the end of dinner. By then we had more of a sense of humor about such mishaps, and just laughed it off.
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