The only light was from that of the Christmas tree and the glass bulbed candles reflected in the window panes. Their plastic bases imitated the dripping of melted wax. Huddled so close to the windows I expected them to express their breath, but instead they revealed clumps of fat white snow flakes falling from the sky.
There was light too from the fire in the painted white brick fireplace with a fur rug sprawled out before it, as if an animal had shed their coat and left it now that it was no longer of use -for what use could an animal have for its fur when the fire was so warm? Warm and crackling and smelling of resin and woodsmoke.
Grandma began to light candles in the dining room. Candlesticks of all colors and sizes. I was too young to notice if she’d opened new ones, peeling the thin crinkling plastic from their smooth sides, or if she’d retrieved old ones from a bureau drawer -their wicks blackened and curled, their tips and sides dripping and sunken from the previous occasion when they had been lit -which must have been as important and as festive as this one -it being Christmas Eve.
From my perspective (eye level being the height of the dining table where the plates had only recently been cleared and still sat piled in the kitchen sink) their flames danced. Light bounced and reflected off the crystal teardrops suspended from the chandelier and the glass handled knobs in the center of beveled glass doors that separated the dining room from the enclosed porch where Grandpa watched baseball from the cool evenings of opening day until those cool evenings returned in the fall. I ate my first nectarine on that porch.
Rainbows darted from every angle of cut glass and I discovered (only just by accident) that if I moved very slightly the rainbows danced too, along with the flames. It was a ballet of twinkling lights, candle flame, sparkling fire, and prisms reflecting in my eyes. THIS! must be the magic of Christmas, I thought. I was only three, but I understood it then better than I ever would again.
I turned my head from side to side. I shifted my weight. I stepped to my right and to my left. I squinted my eyes and unsquinted them. All to see the spellbinding show that unfolded before me.
My aunts, dressed in tailored wool skirts, fresh nylons and silk blouses, wore new Christmas jewelry that sparkled as much as the door knobs. They filled their cut glass wine goblets, but didn’t seem to notice how those glittered too. The lace from the hems of their slips peeking out further and further from rough wool with each filling of the glass.
My uncles, clad in cardigans and plaid vests, slacks, and polyester ties opened amber bottles of beer, which reflected the light of the hearth, as did their tie clips and cufflinks. They too did not seem to see the spectacle.
“Clear some room over here, your mother’s got dessert,” my grandfather said. Aunts cleared away placemats and gravy boats, making space on the credenza. Uncles grumbled.
“I didn’t sign up for dessert,” one of them countered. Grandma was a notoriously bad cook, but I hadn’t discovered that yet. Her hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches were up to snuff for three year old standards.
“What’d she make Dad?” Aunt Kathy asked.
“It’s a surprise…” Grandpa said gruffly. For that was the only way he ever said anything. But it was a loving gruffness. A joking gruffness. There was nothing quite like Grandpa’s voice. It’s what I miss about him most.
“Frank….” my grandmother called from the kitchen softly, for that was the only way Grandma ever said anything (and the thing I miss most about her, now that she too is gone, is also her voice). She was hidden behind the swinging double doors of the dining room. “I need your help….” it nearly sounded like she was singing.
“She needs more than your help…” Uncle Tom.
Grandpa chuckled and swung into the kitchen. “Whadda ya want!?” His demand was mischievous.
There was such lightness here. Adults who loved and laughed so freely seemed to me as magical and wondrous as the lights that continued to bounce and twirl, seemingly for me alone.
“Outta the way! Move it!…” Grandpa burst back into the room, shooing his grown children. “Who’s idea was it to have all these damn kids?” he added wryly.
Grandma was right behind him, but delayed her entrance until she was certain she had center stage.
“Come on Mar, before you burn down the whole damn house.”
“Frank…” her voice sank. She expressed her disappointment by dipping her head sheepishly as she entered. He had ruined the surprise.
She carried a silver tray, topped with a cake pan filled with deep red, sugary, syrupy cherries with leaping flames six inches high in vibrant blues and greens and golds. As if the rest of the display weren’t the most transcendent I’d ever seen, my grandmother forever imprinted on me the wonder and the mystery and the awe of Christmas, and perhaps of life itself, in that very moment with cherries jubilee.
Grandma was always one for first impressions. She dressed impeccably -her hair done, makeup and heels on for every single event outside her home, well into her 89th year. And so she was disappointed when Grandpa ruined her presentation. She bowed her head again, embarrassed. Dispirited. But she didn’t let it get to her. She never did.
“Not so close Mar! You’ll light yourself on fire!” Grandpa wheezed when he laughed. “Christ almighty!”
“How much hairspray’d you use today Ma?”
They started in with the jokes straight away. Uncle Joe demanded to know where the fire extinguisher was because: “Ma! The dessert’s on fire!” Uncle Tom proclaimed: “That’s one way to burn the dessert…” Aunt Judy insisted Grandma was going to burn the house down some day if she wasn’t careful. Frank III, my father, asked where her permit was. Someone suggested they call the fire department. Everyone laid into her, and no one it seemed was delighted about Grandma’s choice of confection. “I thought you were making cheese cake?” Aunt Debbie frowned.
But Grandma didn’t seem to hear a word of the joviality. She did, however, turn to me. Lifting her head, her eyes beaming, and asked (with cherries still aflame atop the credenza) if I wouldn’t like some cherries jubilee. And with a name so joyful as that, and with an entrance as magnificent (even if Grandpa had ruined it) and with what was literally the cherry on top of the glittering, sparkling, delicate cacophony of lights (which now I was certain simply MUST be the magic of Christmas -turning what was normally a bland world of beige and plaid into an enchanting supernatural delight) how could I resist?
I took two spoonfuls of the cherries once they had sufficiently cooled. And by that time most of the candles had burned down to stumps, not to be saved for another auspicious occasion -as if there could be one more auspicious than that of Christmas Eve. And while the logs in the fire hissed and sputtered, their vibrant gold flames flattening and dulling to tomato colored coals, Joe and Tom joked that Grandma was trying to get her granddaughter drunk, what with the amount of booze that must be in those cherries to have them catch on fire, and for so long. “Eh… it’s all burned off,” my grandfather assured my mother. “Trust me.” he added, his eyes widening and taking another sip of his scotch and soda.
The cherries were far too sweet for even a three year old. And their gooey red syrup and mounding islands of fruit sat in the tiny dish on the dining room table, “incase I changed my mind.” But more than eating those cherries, I just wanted to watch them dance again. I wanted, for the rest of my life, to be back there -as that little girl, enamored by the twinkling of lights in a doorknob. The easy laugh of grown ups. The loving jab of family. The glint of candles and the flicker of fire and the flash of smiles and eyes glimmering in the dark. I wanted back to the place where I discovered just how much brightness can be found in the night.
Sleep in Heavenly Peace Grandma