The gift of family memories

I don't remember what I got for Christmas when I was 8.

What I do remember is that Santa crashed his sleigh on Clarion Heights that year.

At least that's what my Uncle Johnny told me.

Uncle Johnny was a successful business type who lived out of state, but he knew how to play like nobody's business. When he blasted into my small northwestern Pennsylvania town for the holidays with my aunt and three cousins, fun had arrived.

That Christmas Eve, as every other one when I was growing up, my extended family gathered at my great-Aunt Edith's house for an Italian feast before midnight mass. Though my grandfather's family had come over on the boat and spoke the language, it had already been lost on my cousins and me.

There were just a few terms we'd picked up. "Venire qui" meant "come here," "stare zitto" meant "shut up," and "mangia" meant "Eat!" There was spaghetti and meatballs with homemade sauce, fried bread dough with and without anchovies and more Spritz cookies decorated with sparkly silver candies than you could shake a Christmas tree branch at.

It was sometime after dinner and everything was progressing as usual.  The women were doing dishes, the kids were playing cards and the men were sitting at the dining room table shouting at one another about Jimmy Carter.

We were about to put our coats on over our Christmas best and tread up the hill to the nearby church at the center of town. With more than 20 of us to go, it was an event of its own. As one of us shook smashed Fritos out of our boots, another fell into the hanging pipe chimes of Aunt Edith's wall clock setting off a resounding clang. A chorus of parents chimed in shouting, "Stay away from the clock!"

About that time, sirens began to blare and wail outside, one after the other. A parade of emergency vehicles sped up the hill to the small hamlet of Clarion Heights. Everyone rushed out to the porch, watching the flashing lights until they finally came to a halt in the far off distance. Snow fell heavily and cars crept along the road.

"Santa wrecked his sleigh up on Clarion Heights!" Uncle Johnny proclaimed.

We all wondered in horror whether we'd still receive our presents on time. Whether Rudolph and the others had survived unscathed.

Our mothers tried to do damage control, telling us it was just a fender bender and they were sure Santa and his reindeer were fine. Meanwhile, Uncle Johnny had taken his message to the street, yelling out to passers-by about the calamity.

I remember a favorite gift or two that I got as a girl. But it's those warm family memories that I still hold and love today. Listening to Burl Ives and baking cookies, playing Spoons and Pig with more people than could actually fit around the table, holding my mom's hand and sliding down the icy hill back to Aunt Edith's house after church, our eyeglasses so fogged up we could hardly see where we were going.

The gifts of toys, clothes and electronics had far less staying power than the gifts of relationship, closeness and time.

As I wrestle with my shopping list and my to-do list, it's becoming clear I'm not going to hit the mark on every item. It helps to keep in mind which of these are non-negotiable.



Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is alnotarianni@aol.com.



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