Yesterday's Magazette

3 – Christmas Eve Without Mama

By Ann Favreau

The year my brother was born was the Christmas Eve without Mama. My mother gave birth on December 20, 1947 and should have been home with her newborn before Christmas. However, there was a huge snowstorm and she caught cold in the hospital while watching the cars try to make it up Carew Street Hill in Springfield, Massachusetts.  My father decided that he would try to take our minds off missing Mama, so we headed for my grandma’s house to celebrate Christmas Eve with some of his family.

Grandma lived in a tenement in the Italian section of the city. As a child, it always gave me the creeps to climb up the narrow wooden stairs to the second floor. However, on that cold winter night, as soon as the old brown door opened, the gaiety surrounded us. My little sister Dorothy and I had to endure the smothering kisses of our aunts. Their special holiday dresses were covered with large aprons spotted with tomato sauce. The smells of the Christmas Eve feast enveloped us with anticipation. But first, we had to put our coats on the bed in Uncle Frankie’s room.

Uncle Frank was a giant of a man with a booming voice. He was a musician and played the bass, which never seemed like a large instrument nestled against his huge body. His wife, Aunt Fran, was a quiet, small woman with a lovely face and manner.  To his bravado, she was the counterpoint.

Aunt Antoinette, whom we called Auntie Net, was helping my grandma in the kitchen. The large black stove held a huge pot of her special sauce. I thought it was a magic pot because whenever we went to Grandma’s house, there was always sauce in it.

The smell of tomatoes, basil, and oregano pervaded the atmosphere of the apartment throughout the year. Grandma raised her own tomatoes and herbs in a garden near the river. She put up hundreds of Coca~Cola bottles filled with crushed fresh tomatoes every summer that she processed in huge metal tubs on our outdoor fireplace. Auntie Net was also a great cook. Her meatballs were legendary. She gave my sister and me a piece of Italian bread dipped in sauce to eat while we waited for dinner to be ready. Her boys, Vinnie and Dougie, soon steered us back to the living room to see the tree. Aunt Rosie had decorated it with care and she pointed out some of the very special ornaments.

In the meantime, my father went to talk to Poppu, his stepfather, of sorts. I never knew my real grandfather. He developed blood poisoning from a sliver embedded in his palm while carrying wooden boxes of wine grapes to his grocery store. Neglected, the innocuous little piece of wood led to his demise when my father was only sixteen. When my grandfather passed away, his best friend moved into the house to help my grandma take care of her nine children and provide financial support. I never knew him by any other name than Poppu. He was a carpenter and had helped build our house. We would discover on this Christmas afternoon that he had made a beautiful wooden toy box that was secreted into the trunk of our car while we played games with our cousins.

When Grandma announced that the food was ready, we all sat down around the large table. Because as Catholics we couldn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve, we began with stuffed squid. The squid tubes had been filled with a cracker crumb and chopped green olive stuffing and then baked in a red sauce. Fried smelts, crispy and light, followed. My sister and I didn’t care for the eel or the dried cod or bacala, and waited for the spaghetti with squid sauce—made with the tentacles. Then the salad with cold octopus was served. The grownups had wine, and we were allowed to have ginger ale because it was a special occasion.

After dinner we went into the living room while the aunts cleaned up. Uncle Frankie got out his bass and handed my father his guitar. They played Christmas songs and we sang along. Then Grandma gave my sister and me a tiny box filled with Torrone candy, a very special holiday treat of nougat and almonds with a thin wafer on top. I always liked to eat the wafer first and then savor the sticky almond nougat and roll the nuts around in my mouth to make them last.

By this time it was getting late, and my sister and I were ready to go home. My father was having a grand time playing the guitar and didn’t want to leave. He said that we could stay over at Grandma’s house and go home in the morning, but I burst into tears. I sobbed that we had to be in our own beds or Santa wouldn’t come to our house.  My crying started my sister wailing, and my father put down the guitar, hugged us and told Aunt Fran to get our coats. Poppu came over and placed a dollar in each of our hands. We never left Grandma’s house without his slipping us a coin. He congratulated my father once again for having a boy to carry on the family name.

As my sister and I cuddled in the back seat of the cold car, my father told us that we would be getting a very special Christmas present this year. Mama and our new baby brother Vincent would be coming home on Christmas Day. We would pick them up at the hospital right after Mass. If Christmas Eve without mama had been an evening of mixed emotions, Christmas Day was sure to be very special—with Mama home, presents from Santa and Poppu, and a new baby brother.

*Ann Favreau  is a retired educator. She is currently the Director of the Suncoast Writers’ Guild of Englewood, FL. Her prose and poetry has been published in many magazines and anthologies. Her recent book Window Eyes highlights her global adventures in which she describes herself as a traveler who marvels at the awesome and finds wonder in the ordinary. It is available from and will soon be available on

Vol. 37 No. 4 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter- 2010/11


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