My mother used to say she wanted me to marry an orphan so she could always have me at home for the holidays. I understand her impulse, but just the same I didn’t let her holiday plans influence my choice of partners. In marrying my husband, Kevin, not only did I wed a man whose family dwarfed mine in size (he’s the 10th of 12 children; I’m the elder of two), but I joined an extended family whose home base was halfway across the country in Iowa.
Growing up, we’d had the same holiday routine every year. Each Christmas Eve, we drove to my father’s parents in Dundalk for a traditional Polish celebration. Cousin upon cousin would cram into Busia and Dziadzia’s duplex and we’d take turns sitting at the heavy mahogany table while aunts in flowered dresses and aprons served a meatless meal of mushroom soup, fried steakfish, coddies, sauerkraut and my favorite, pirogies— all washed down with the sweetest iced tea north of the Virginia line. As if we hadn’t eaten enough, dessert was my Aunt Stella’s walnut pound cake or her chrusciki— crispy cookies fried in lard, just one powdered sugary bite away from being a potato chip.
On Christmas morning, my mother’s parents came to our house for a traditional breakfast of Aunt Stella’s homemade celery sausage, bakery rye bread and slices of ham browned in the breakfast skillet with any leftover pirogies. For Christmas dinner there was roast beef, stuffed baked potatoes and spinach soufflé.
When Kevin and I decided it was only fair to spend Christmas 1995 (the second year of our marriage) with his family, I felt torn. Never, in 27 years, had I missed Christmas Eve with my father’s family or Christmas morning at my own family’s house. Without my family, our traditions, our food, would it even feel like Christmas? But I didn’t want to be a poor sport (or an even worse wife), so I mustered all my holiday spirit for the snowy drive to Iowa.
On Christmas Eve, we gathered with Kevin’s family at his brother Tom’s house in Cedar Rapids for a present exchange and meal that featured oyster stew rather than Polish mushroom soup. Then, the next morning, we drove three hours to Elma, Kevin’s tiny hometown in northeast Iowa, to cook dinner for his father, John.
There are few people I enjoyed cooking for more than my late father-in-law (my own dad would be among them). John was not a gourmand. He stashed long rolls of braunschweiger in the freezer next to packages of brown’n’serve sausages, and he collected blocks of American cheese from the agricultural extension that sat in the refrigerator like yellow bricks. He wouldn’t eat nuts or other hard things because of troubles with his teeth. And he kept butter in the kitchen cupboard (above the picture of dogs playing poker), so that it would always be soft. But he loved my cooking (and our company), and that’s all I needed for inspiration.
To re-create the Zajac Christmas dinner in John’s apartment, however, I would need my own supplies. (Though occasionally, as I poked through John’s kitchen cabinets looking for salt and pepper, I’d find remnants of goodies left by other guests— fancy teas and tiny jars of jam from my sister-in-law in suburban Chicago, and Harry & David candies from my Minneapolis-based brother-in-law.) Before I left Chicago, I’d packed a cooler with a roast, fresh string beans and frozen spinach, and a pound of butter. Kevin and I had also brought carrots, potatoes for mashing, garlic, onion, apples for pie, a tin of homemade Christmas cookies and a good knife. On Christmas Day, while my family in Baltimore was most likely in a post-breakfast food coma, I began peeling and chopping and slicing.
Over the course of the afternoon, news that I was making dinner spread, and by 6 o’clock, Kevin’s sister’s family had driven in from the country to join us. Eight of us in flannel, jeans, and sweatshirts gathered around a kitchen table made by Kevin’s youngest brother, while my family at home sat down to a linen-covered table in ties and Sunday clothes. We didn’t break op?atki, a Polish Communion wafer my family shared before the Christmas meal, but we did say grace.
As nephews put away plate after plate of food, we talked about Christmases past. Kevin recalled the toy tractor he received as a gift one year (it gave off sparks!), the small toys and candy that Santa would pass out at the local hall and the time when his Aunt Muriel cooked a huge goose for the holiday dinner. There was talk of Sears catalogs and new baseball mitts. And there were a few tears remembering Kevin’s mother, who passed away just before Christmas in 1986. Throughout it all, though, my father-in-law, never a man of many words, ate slowly, relishing every bite, thrilled to have his family around him and to enjoy Christmas dinner in his apartment instead of having to travel to someone else’s home.
After the dishes were cleared, a family friend and his mother joined us for pie and coffee and an animated game of Euchre, a card game played with fierce competitiveness by my father-in-law and other Midwesterners. And later, after everyone went home, John shuffled over to his blue La-Z-Boy chair to watch the evening news. His eyes gleamed as he grinned and took a deep breath before uttering his usual exclamation of happiness: “Well …”
All day I’d been thinking that it didn’t feel like Christmas. And it didn’t feel like my usual Christmas. But darn it, it still felt good.