December 18, 2009

Christmas memories

Christmas with the cousins is a great family legacy

By Ida Lamberti (Special to The Criterion)

It was getting close to Christmas, and that meant the big family gathering with all of the cousins.

Winnie loved Christmas, but the part that she liked the best was being with all of the cousins who gathered at Grandma Fitzpatrick’s farm to celebrate Christmas Day.

Winnie’s Grandma and Grandpa Fitzpatrick lived on a farm in northwest Iowa. Winnie’s mother, Mary Fitzpatrick, and her mother’s sisters and brothers all grew up on the Fitzpatrick farm near the West Branch River.

Winnie thought that it must have been wonderful growing up there because in the winter the shallow river was always frozen over by Christmas and it stayed frozen until the following spring. It was perfect for ice skating all winter long, and especially for playing “Crack the Whip” with all of the Fitzpatrick cousins on Christmas Day.

On Christmas morning, Winnie awoke with a feeling of anticipation and hurried downstairs to the warm kitchen.

Her mother was always busy putting the final touches on the food for the Christmas feast, and the kitchen smelled like cinnamon and brown sugar and raisins.

Her father was already outside feeding the horses and getting them ready for the trip to Grandma Fitzpatrick’s farm. Her father hitched the horses to the bobsled, and covered the bottom of the bobsled with clean straw and heavy blankets for the family to sit on.

Inside the house, her mother had heated bricks on the kitchen stove and wrapped them in towels to put in the bottom of the bobsled to help keep them warm as they drove to Grandma Fitzpatrick’s.

The air was crisp and still, the only sound coming from the sleigh bells attached to the horses’ harness.

Winnie was always amazed at how Christmas Day unfolded. As soon as they arrived, carried in the food and hung up their coats, her mother and Grandma Fitzpatrick talked about “making the table big.”

She never heard any of the grown-ups use that expression except at Christmastime so she guessed that it meant what had to happen to the table to hold all of the special foods that had been prepared.

After it was covered with the big white tablecloth, her older sisters, Frances and Loretta, carefully placed Grandma’s best dishes and silverware evenly around the table.

Winnie didn’t mind not getting to help because she could barely take her eyes away from the front windows that looked out on the lane and down the road. For Winnie, the high point of the day was the arrival of the cousins.

Finally, to her great delight, she saw their team of horses and buggy coming down the lane carrying Aunt Kate and her family.

Winnie’s mother, Mary Fitzpatrick, had married Dan Doherty so Winnie and her sisters and brother were the “Doherty Cousins.” Her mother’s sister, Kate Fitzpatrick, had married John Linnan so all of their big family were the “Linnan Cousins.”

Winnie watched with anticipation as the buggy drew closer. Finally, the horses came to a stop, and Aunt Kate and all of the “Linnan Cousins” descended on Grandma Fitzpatrick’s house with great energy and excitement.

Winnie was one of the younger cousins so she watched in awe as the older girls gathered and laughed and exchanged Christmas cheer.

Before long, they all sat down to the Christmas feast. When dinner was finished, it was Uncle Luke Fitzpatrick’s time for his part of the Christmas tradition. Uncle Luke, who was mother’s bachelor brother, always had a gift for each of his nieces and nephews.

Uncle Luke was a great reader so his favorite gift for each of them was a book. Every year, Uncle Luke seemed to choose just the right book for each of her cousins. She wondered how Uncle Luke, who had no children, would know which books to choose, even for the girls.

For Winnie, a favorite was the series of books by Louisa May Alcott—the stories of Little Women and Little Men, and especially its sequel, Eight Cousins.

Too soon, the sun began to slide slowly down the western sky, and the ritual began of gathering everything up and preparing for the drive back home.

The men hitched up the horses while the women gathered their dishes. The cousins began the round of goodbyes before they moved out into the cold, evening air for the ride home, bidding farewell to another Christmas Day.

In later years, after Winnie—now Grandma Coleman—was grown and had a family of her own, she sometimes mused about what it was that made those holidays with the cousins so special.

She wondered whether her cousins also held those memories in such affection, or whether the books that she read during her childhood enhanced those occasions and formed in her memory a deeper appreciation of those loving relationships and tender times.

However it happened, Christmas with the cousins has been a great legacy, and “waiting for the cousins” is still a time-honored tradition.

(Ida Lamberti is a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.)

Local site Links: