by Elise Sereni Patkotak
When you’re young, you think your holidays will go on forever in the old familiar way. But they won’t. Eventually, what you’ll have is memories. Hopefully they will be wonderful.
For me, Christmas will always mean my Aunt Ida’s house on Sylvania Street in Germantown. My family would start the day in Atlantic City, opening presents and getting dressed in our new winter clothes. My brother and I were allowed to pick one gift we could bring in the car for bragging rights with all the cousins we’d soon be seeing. We would have gone to midnight mass so that obligation was behind us. The trip to Philly took about 90 minutes because my father refused to take the new highway that had the nerve to charge him a toll for his business. We took the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge over the Delaware River to Philly because that bridge was free on Christmas. They also gave out candy canes to any kids in the car and then wished you a happy holiday. Each time my dad would explain that the bridge had been built privately, paid off completely and now was able to offer free trips on the holidays. It was all the proof he needed that America was truly a great country.
I’d venture to guess that if I went back to that house on Sylvania Street today it would seem a little small and cramped. But in my memory, it is big and beautiful with a dining room that sat our whole family plus a sideboard, a huge mirror over the sideboard and an espresso maker from Italy so big it had its own table.
Before eating we visited various relatives — Uncle Albert and Aunt Jeannie, Uncle Bart and Aunt Connie, Uncle Freddie and Aunt Sally. Uncle Joe and Aunt Toni and their kids would stop by at Aunt Ida’s to say hi before going to her mom’s house for dinner. Aunt Adeline would be called, and the annual argument ensued about whether she would come or not.
Because of childhood polio, she needed a ride over, and she famously was reluctant to depend on others in that way. My mother would argue that this was the holiday and she had to come over. Aunt Ida would be yelling from the kitchen for my father to just go get her and stop arguing. Eventually he did, as well as picking up Uncle Henry from Norristown Hospital.
Uncle Henry had suffered oxygen deprivation at birth and was mentally impaired. But that didn’t mean he was excluded from family holidays. When everyone was finally assembled, the meal would begin with an antipasto my father had lovingly made and carried up in the back of the car. Then came the pasta. Then the roast. Then the salad. Then the fruit, dried figs and nuts. Finally, the espresso with a shot of anisette and a lemon twist in each cup and homemade Italian cookies.
After this light repast, the men went into the living room and started snoring. The kids passed out on various parts of the carpet. The women gathered in the kitchen to wash dishes. As soon as they were done, the table was reset, the men and children awakened, and a “light” snack of all the leftovers was served prior to the long, arduous trip back home.
My Aunt Ida would not have been able to live with herself had she found out we starved on the 90-minute journey back to Atlantic City. So sandwiches were packed up, Aunt Adeline and Uncle Henry returned to their respective dwellings, and we started for home, taking the back roads out of Philly so my mother could see all the Christmas lights on all the houses.
I always missed that because I was asleep again about 20 seconds into the car ride. These wonderful people are all gone now, but I can still see them in old family movies. Better yet, I can close my eyes and watch them all come alive again in my heart and mind. I can hear their voices, smell their perfumes and aftershaves and feel the love in their embraces. May you all have wonderful holiday memories that warm you on your journey through life.
This column was reprinted, with permission, from the Anchorage, Alaska, Daily News. It was brought to our attention by Stephen Gillies, whose family is from Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy but who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska. The writer, Elise Sereni Patkotak, grew up in Germantown but has lived in Barrow, Alaska, for 30 years. Visit her website at www.elisepatkotak.com. One of the entries on her website is as follows: “When I was at Chestnut Hill College for Female Catholic Virgins (helluva entrance exam!) in the mid 1960s, the world around me was exploding with civil rights marches, anti-war protests (Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? … they simply don’t make chants like that anymore) and women’s battle for equality. What were they doing at Chestnut Hill College for Female Catholic Virgins? The students marched in orderly fashion around the main entrance to the dining room to protest the removal of mandarin oranges from the fruit salad. You can’t make stuff like that up.”