Different Kinds of Gifts
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Over the river and through the Bronx, to grandmother’s house we go!
I grew up in a tiny town, living alongside several dozen (or more!) first cousins, second cousins, aunts and uncles all on my mother’s side of the family. The extended Kaschak/Moschak clan saw each other plenty through the year, so it’s no surprise that we spent the big holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas out of town with the other side of the family. We five Sikoryaks would pack into the car and drive 60 miles to visit Dad’s folks in the Bronx. That’s where we’re going now.
The first half of the trip is relatively quick, with everyone in a good mood and a steady stream of Christmas tunes mixed in with the top 40 on 77 WABC-AM. Jammed into the back seat with my brothers, I hold a new holiday acquisition up to the light and watch the sunshine glint off of the sparkly lime-green paint job. Squinting through the dark bubble-topped Hot Wheels Silhouette, I try to imagine sitting inside the tiny die-cast car. It sure looks neat against the window—like it’s really racing.
As we approached the George Washington Bridge, I crane my neck in vain, hoping for a glimpse of the Little Red Lighthouse. I knew it was there, because I’d read the picture book at the library—but Dad informs me that there’s no way to see it from the roadway. And he’s not in the mood for a conversation—the second half of the trip was slower, as the traffic piled up on the Cross Bronx Expressway.
He switches to WOR to hear Flying Fred Feldman, the helicopter traffic reporter, who was keeping his eye out for “rubbernecking delays.” I’ll have to remember to ask what those are, sometime.
We arrive at my grandparents’ house a little before noon, almost two hours after leaving Manville. It’s a bright, clear day on Rawlins Avenue, with rows of small boxy brick houses separated by chain link fences and hedges. The few trees are small and completely bare, and the streets are lined with plowed ice and snow from last week’s storm. The frozen brown grass crinkles and crunches beneath my feet as we walk to Granma’s house.
We climb the stairs to the second floor and I hesitate at the top. Dad waves me on. “You don’t have to knock—just go right in.” That’s a little different. I’m used to waiting for an invitation from Mom’s family. Entering the front door, I’m hit with a wave of warm, moist air. Granpa has his feet up in front of the TV, as a marching band plays. A nasal voice cuts through the noise: “Who’s that? Is that my Joseph?”
A stout woman with ruddy cheeks and steamed-over spectacles comes round the corner, wiping her hands on her soiled apron. Her smile is broad and genuine as she embraces me. “Look at you, Joseph. You’re so big! How old are you now?” I remind her that I turned 10 in October. “Mike, look at your grandson. Doesn’t he look just like his father?” She still has her arm around me—that’s unusual too. Granpa leans over to face us and motions me to come over. Since he actually works 6 1/2 days a week, I guess he’s reluctant to get out of his chair, but soon he’s shaking hands with Dad and giving Mom a peck on the cheek.
Bored with the scene in the living room, I gravitate to the kitchen and Granma is right behind me. “Are you hungry? You must be hungry—It’s almost lunch time. Let me get you something.” She offers a ham sandwich and I say sure. The noise level in the house begins to climb as Dad and Granpa continue to talk over the sound of the TV, and brothers Steve and Rob come nosing around as well. Mom tries to help—but Granma isn’t having it—so she sits and makes conversation. The plates clatter, the old refrigerator hums and buzzes as other family members begin to arrive.
Most of them didn’t travel far. This modest brick house was a dwelling for three generations on four floors. Below us, at street level, Uncle Dave and Aunt Marge lived with their three boys. Aunt Marion, the youngest, lives in the attic rooms, and for awhile, Aunt Dorothy and her husband Ray also lived in the basement. Today they’ll be making the trip from Long Island with their kids.
As the men gathered around Granpa’s TV to watch football, and the women collected in the kitchen, we boys head downstairs in search of our peers. Davy, Ricky and Eric were just a few years apart just like we were, but a couple of years older, so there was a range of toys and games available to entertain us. I was drawn to a box of comic books, but our New York cousins were more interested in playing ball outside. I reluctantly put down Justice League of America vs. Starro to be a good sport, but made a silent promise to return.
A half-hour of whiffs, fouls, and errors drive Davy and Ricky to look elsewhere for playmates. I wander back inside, following my nose to the pungent aromas in the basement kitchen. My aunts were stirring pots and making small talk with Mom, and I suffered through a round of affectionate squeezes in order to get my finger in the mixing bowls. Even after they shoo’d me away, I perched on a barstool at the edge of the kitchen, and listened awhile. Their laughs seemed a lot more relatable than the men’s yelling upstairs. Mom showed off her latest work, a new crocheted Christmas stocking for Dorothy’s youngest. Eventually, everyone got a stocking from Mom.
Dinner was surely the main event of the day, and it took all the female hands to bring it to the table. Uncle Raymond leads us all in grace before we dig in. Christmas dinner tended to look a lot like Thanksgiving, and the two blurred for me. Turkey, mashed potatoes, yams and canned cranberry sauce were mainstays of both. I came for Granma’s dressing, which tasted like nothing that Mom ever cooked for us. It was so savory and complex that after a second helping, I had to ask: what made it taste so good? Granma smiled and looked at Mom and Dad, as if to get their permission. “It’s the gizzards. The turkey heart, all cut up.” There was a pause, while everyone waited to see my reaction. I shrugged, decided that I liked gizzards, and asked for a third helping.
This prompted my cousin Davy to ask Mom about her contribution, which he was enjoying. “Why do you call this ‘carrot bread’? It’s just cake, right?” Mom smirked a little and said, “It’s called carrot bread because I make it with shredded carrots.” Dave slowed his chewing, unable to wrap his mind around the concept of a sweet vegetable. “But it tastes like cake.” “It is cake, just made with carrots.” Davy barely swallows his remaining mouthful and puts down the half-eaten slice. “I don’t eat carrots. Can I be excused?”
While the women cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher, I followed Davy back to his place. His arms were deep inside the freezer, producing a large white box sealed in cellophane. “You like Sara Lee?” I'm stupefied. How could he do this? Not because we just had a big dinner—I mean, there’s always room for dessert. But Mom would never let us pilfer a large treat all for ourselves. Ricky had already produced a large knife and was plunging it into the frozen cake. “You want some?” Well. Who am I to refuse my cousin’s hospitality?
We retired to their living room and turned on the TV. It was a large 20" RCA in a wooden cabinet, just like the one at our house. Granpa had bought all of his children a new color TV in 1965. That was great, just in time to see the first Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Now we had tuned into something completely different—some kind of adventure movie with men fighting a giant crab on the beach. My eyes were popping from the spectacle—or was it the sugar rush? By the time we finished our cake, the men were making a meal of the crustacean.
“Whatcha got there?” I turned to see Aunt Margie, standing between us and the kitchen. My face grew pale as I tried to hide my plate with the tell-tale crumbs. But that’s not where she was looking. Motioning to the TV screen, she says “That’s a good one. With Captain Nemo, right?” I would need a minute to process this. My aunt has a passing acquaintance with the work of Jules Verne? And she likes it? In my house, Mom never cared about what we were watching, but she would definitely have had something to say about a demolished chocolate cake on the counter. Instead, Marge just stood there, dragging on her cigarette, and chuckling over the antics of an oversized antediluvian chicken attacking our heroes.
We all gathered in Granma’s living room to exchange gifts. By that I mean, the kids got presents from the adults. I always appreciated my Aunt Marion’s gifts—as the youngest of her generation, she had a clue what toys were the most desirable, and working at S. Kleins, she got an employee discount. So I was delighted to get the biggest, noisiest, most disreputable junk that Mattel, Hasbro or Ideal had to offer. The sound of jet engines and machine gun fire drowned out any objections my parents might have had.
By 8:00pm, the second round of leftovers were done, the dishes cleared, and it was time to leave. As I slipped on my coat and mittens, Granma approached with a serious look on her face. Even though she was only in her mid-fifties, her face was lined and careworn from a life of hard work. She was so sweet and attentive, who would consider her history? Immigrating to the US from Slovakia. Living through the deprivation of the Great Depression and World War II, while raising four children in a tiny studio apartment. Working side by side with Granpa in the butcher shop six days a week. Not that I considered any of that, I was barely aware. But I could see she had something on her mind.
“Joseph, this is for you. Don’t tell your parents.” She pressed a folded piece of paper in my hand and wrapped her arms around me. I didn’t quite know how to respond, I don’t get these kinds of hugs at home. My arms began to reach for her, just as she pulled away. “You’re a good boy. Take good care of your brothers and listen to your parents.” She kissed me on the cheeks and turned away. A little dazed, I looked at the $5 bill in my hand, then stuffed it deep into my pocket.
The ride home seemed much faster, partly because traffic was light, partly because I was drifting in and out of sleep, and mostly because Dad kept his foot on the gas. Cousin Brucie cues up the Ronette’s “Sleigh Ride” on the radio. I watch the street lamps flicker by as Mom calls out Turnpike exits from the front seat. Everyone was in a hurry to get home.
Well, everyone but me. Things were sure different on Dad’s side of the family. I fingered the folded bill in my pocket. I could hear Grandma’s words in my ear, and feel all the hugs and kisses. Very different from home.
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This story is part of my continuing work in Suze Allen’s memoir writing workshop. You can learn more about it at her website.