That no one can deny, a sure way for a writer to lose an audience is to re-hash one’s Catholic 1950s-era Christmas Eve experiences. Very disingenuous, such would be better left unsaid, but I shall begin at the beginning (Genesis) – the Scene, a humble downstairs-apartment, 2030 Jackson Street, West Scranton, PA, kitchen & coal-stove, a table with one-candle burning, more than ten of my family members’ heads are bowed, “Baba,” Susan Graycar, leading all in prayer. Baba spent past two-weeks making pierogi, mushroom soup, pascha bread, and by Slav-custom, no fish, meat consumption VERBOTEN. No one seated at the table dared speak while eating, they’d have to answer to Baba. And no one tried departing dinner table until all had finished eating sacred-meal. Soon, quite impatient, the family would cram into parlor, sit upon sofa, nearby a decorated pine-tree. My god-mother at time, the late-Mary Surgent, in a beautiful soprano-voice, led all in singing Christmas Carols, my all-time favorite, Silent Night. It might be interesting for some to know how delighted I was after opening a gift, eyes glazed-over, and seeing a colorful “Jack-in-Box” which played a continual happy tune which had no end.
Today of course, December 25, 2013, one finds Christmas Eve’s across USA have changed dramatically, and at 4:30 PM, Tuesday, I departed workplace, the last employee out door, and locked our Company gate. Frigid, I awaited arrival of my 22-year old son, Daniel, who was assigned to pick me up in our family 2007, Kia Sportage. In a fairly happy mood, no emergency spill responses going-on, I had to be careful with Daniel’s present mood. In 1998, he was diagnosed with a mild-case of Cerebral Palsy, but suffered and coped with considerable harm done to body and mind. Behind Kia-wheel, Dan was silent, joyless, and my contradictory sensitivity & non-acceptance of his moods created a tense journey to our family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner – this year’s venue, my wife Carol’s sister, Evelyn’s, Taylor Borough home.
Daniel and I entered Evelyn’s seasonally decorated-home, I kissed her, husband Ira, wife Carol, my younger son Joseph, Grandmother Florence, and 10-month old, Ethan. Looked at dinner table, pointsettia in center, a grand array of breaded-fish, raisin-bread, mushroom & sauerkraut soup, pierogi, macaroni-salad, shrimp, and again NO meat, Christmas Eve remained strict Catholic Fast-Day. Festivities stronger than him, Daniel did not catch “the Christmas spirit,” indeed he offered ritual kisses & hugs, but retreated into parlor, alone. I had hoped to help Dan rise out of the funk, but such achievement never came easy. In order to hide my troubled inner- mood, I turned attention to long-curly haired Ethan, ten months old, dressed in pajamas, very excited, and a smiling Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer displayed upon his tiny chest. Just moments after I entered the home, Ethan approached , began to scream, “Da-Da, Da-Da!” Instantly, I looked toward wife Carol and her mother Florence. Something wrong, tears flowing from both their eyes. Ethan’s father Paul, mid-40s, was once again, absent. Speaking with Ira and Evelyn, I learned their only son, Paul, a veteran of Lackawanna County and Philadelphia prison systems, was not home, he’s gone on another heroin-binge, severe addiction which dated back 25-years. Ethan continued to address me as “Da-Da,” and I needed to break the news to him that I’m merely “Uncle Chuck.” Was time to eat, great-grandmother Florence, 85-years old, lifted Ethan, did her best to position him in high-chair.
Looking at all the delicious food, it was easy to momentarily forget about heroin addiction. Everyone took seats, I caught my son Daniel taking sips of soup before Grace, and reminded him one must wait. Suddenly, all smiles, it was Florence’s time to assert, and remind all about the reason people gathered on Christmas Eve. She reached for a package of thin-wafers which lay beside the pointsettia. Florence took care, opened the package with reverence. In short-shrift, for those unfamiliar with custom, the wafers are called Oplatek, always blessed by Roman Catholic priests. Florence began prayers, standard “Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be.” Upon completion, all remained upright, and Florence removed one wafer from package, and passed it around the table to each family member. Upon extending the wafer to my wife Carol, Florence said, “Christ is born,” and Carol responded, “Glorify Him.” Piece-by-broken piece, this process continued among all members gathered at the table. Completed, only then did we sit, meal commenced. Rather late in life, I learned that the historical basis for Oplatek was rooted in the “Last Supper,” when ancients gathered to eat, break-bread, and ritually consume a “food” transformed as flesh and blood.
While at work, lunchtime, and in order to make room for massive intake of Christmas Eve dinner, I purposefully ate two containers of Price Chopper strawberry & banana yogurt. Later, belly-stuffed, sipped “Mogen David” wine, I watched little Ethan break free from high-chair, began to open presents which of course delighted, but,as typical, he focused most upon gift-boxes, ran inside the bathroom, returned, and started to play with a beloved toothbrush. Given financial constraints, our family assembly and subsequent gift-giving did not resemble what one sees on jewelry T.V. commercials. Like many families of the US “Economic Recovery,” for past decade and more, my family and I forged a non-aggression pact, including terms which required all to wait until Federal Income tax-returns arrive in mail, and only then does a Santa appear. Stricken with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus, wife Carol could never stay long at any social events anymore. Soon she signaled we’d best go home, and I departed for Evelyn’s closet in order to get our coats. While passing through a hallway, Evelyn and Ira were behind, and said, “psst, Chuck, can you hold-on? We’d like to play you something before you go?” O.K, o.k., be happy to…, thought I’d hear a tape-recording of Ethan’s first words, or something bothersome “cute” like that. But it was not.
Ira and Evelyn escorted me inside T.V. room, we headed to their telephone. Evelyn said she wanted to play a disturbing phone-message that she received from their heroin-addicted son, Paul, at 2:30 AM. It is important to realize that I never heard Paul speak in FULL heroin-free-Fall. During such times, he’s gone, real-gone, a thief, he often robbed from mother, father, and loving grandmother Florence. Off heroin, he is an extremely likable person, a loving father, talented carpenter, an accomplished blues-guitarist & vocalist. From jail, Paul often wrote me passionate letters & explained how he loved reading Joseph Campbell and William Burroughs. How he loved heroin. I sympathized, tried to be gentle, said, “too bad you’re not Keith Richards, & under some control…, but you may never have that kind of Rolling Stone-money around.” “Yea, Chuck, somehow it all ain’t right, but soon I’m outta this hell-hole, putting-on roofs, play my guitar soon.” Bonnie & Clyde, Paul & Heroin; Evelyn pushed the telephone’s voice-message play button, and Paul’s voice was heard, addressing mom and dad, Christmas Eve, 2013. from a Clarks Summit, PA, Ramada Inn:
“Ma, its me, Paul. I’m warning you just this one-time. I am returning home with the Taylor Police. Let us inside the house and give me my (expletive) money!” I know exactly where its stashed. If not, or else, I’ll bring the full-force of the (expletive) law against you. I mean this, mom, and you too, dad, if you’re there. I don’t give an (expletive). You’re wicked, you’re spending my roofing-money on lottery tickets, and one more time, I promise to bring the full force of Law against you & dad until you hand-over my (expletive) money to me.”
Listening to such insane-outburst, I grimaced, had to step back. Never before heard Heroin- Speak. Evelyn asked if I cared to listen again. “No, no, I got full impact, Evelyn, and so-so sorry, I can’t listen to a re-play.” Stepfather Ira informed me that while Paul operated a thriving roof-business this past year, he accumulated down-payments from customers, and indeed, he did have about $5,000.00 stashed-away in a box downstairs, where he lived. The family explained how they are presently besieged with telephone calls from Paul’s angry customers who paid him money “up-front”and never saw him again. Ira tugged me to side, and indicated the best Christmas gift he, as a non-practicing Jew, can ever receive is a police notification that Paul is under arrest. Shortly afterward, my family and I put on coats, bid good night, and one more time, I looked at Oplatek which lay upon dinner table, and Ethan showing his toothbrush to Ira and Evelyn’s dog, Corky.
I am frequently told “backsliders” like me must accept that traditional Christmas Eve get-togethers are, for most part, gone. Doubtless, the sad-scene depicted in this essay would likely charm those more unfortunates who dwell only a couple miles away, in downtown Scranton apartments. Drunkeness and poverty always accompanied religious holidays, and everyday is a Feast Day for addicts; black-X’s written on every track-mark. In 1950s, my father Charlie reluctantly took me along to visit his father on Christmas Day, I was taught to call my grandfather Dziadek. Born in Poland, Dziadek worked Lackawanna Valley coal mines. Spoke sparse-English, he had “Black Lung,” I never once saw my grandfather sober. Father told me how as a US Army, Private first Class, WW II, combat duty in Leyte, he sent most of his Army-pay-checks back home, and requested Dziadek to “sock it away for me, build nest egg.” Upon return home, wounded in stomach from a mortar shell explosion, unemployed Charlie learned Dziadek had “pissed all the money away.”
Such are not healthy remembrances about Christmas’s past. Complaining really does little good, and its definitely much “cooler” to fantasize about Wall Street and Pharmaceutical Co. Christmas celebrations. Better yet, for caddy-traditionalists like me, age 61, it might help to ponder an idea that entire nations will eventually lose taste for unbridled-capitalism. A swell thought? For now, I consider spiritual meaning is actually found in today’s Holy-Family-Bling ceremonies, within heart-broken households, like little Ethan’s, searches for father & mother, toddlers greeting strangers who enter homes as “Da-Da”. I pause and consider what’s written on this page. Readers unaware, but Ethan’s mother is an addict too. In & out of jails, by law she’s not allowed to visit him, & the situation does not seem to trouble her much. Ira and Evelyn are mid-60s, it will not be easy raising Ethan, who come February 2014, enters “Terrible Two’s.” Tonight I want to “just say no” to jet-setters, and those aloof millions who cannot conceptualize addicts, beyond themselves, as human. For in run-down American flats, thousands gather each night, share needles, and maybe one or two recall non-hallucinogenic Oplatek being passed around family tables.
It’s 12:22 AM, Christmas 2013 over, Evelyn & Ira’s doors locked, a motion-light installed on mantle. Wall Street expert David John Marotta has advised investors about “terrible people in the world,” and recommends purchasing firearms “for protection during collapse.” Imagine .350 Magnums and Glocks stuffed inside family Christmas stockings? Wise Men will be wise to holiday-travel with only frankincense, poppy, & myrrh – leave cash and gold behind.
Charles Orloski lives in Taylor, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at ccdjOrlov@aol.com