Of all the Pine Street regulars, Leo had the best, simplest memories of Christmas. Raised among dozens of cousins in an extended family with more of just about everything – kids, trouble, food, affection – other than money, Leo spent most of his childhood Christmases at his grandmother’s house.
Her farm house sat at the top of a gentle hill on the distant outskirts of his home town. It had been built by her father and uncles, using hand tools for the finish work, scooping a hole for a basement with mules to pull the digging blades and drag away the piles of dirt and rubble on sleds. The house was solid, small, and cold in the winters.
Leo and his cousins would share a drafty attic room on Christmas Eve night, grown-ups gone to church, rowdy children left at the house to fend for themselves. They would stay up as late as they could, promising one another to stay awake, to see Santa, to wake the others when he arrived.
Snuggled under piles of blankets, each and every cousin was asleep by the time midnight Mass ended. The adults returned, mounded gaudily wrapped presents under the tree, and miraculously found places to sleep in nooks and crannies around the tiny farm house.
At first light, the cousins roused, cursed their lot at missing Santa once again, felt the delicious anxiety of wondering whether there would be any presents for them, and cascaded thumpingly down the narrow stair to the kitchen.
Leo’s grandmother was always up before them, always pulling warm biscuits out of her oven, always stirring gravy, scrambled eggs, and hash browns in vast cast iron skillets. Each cousin kissed the cheek she offered, flush with warmth from labor and stove, as she sternly reminded them: “Breakfast first, then presents.”
The flood of cousins then broke into the living room, issuing a collective gasp of delight at the mountain of gifts and tree, waking up the rest of the grown-ups, and launching the raucous barely-controlled chaos of Christmas morning. They ate rafters of eggs, potatoes, biscuits, and gravy, tore into wrapping paper and boxes, oohed and aahed and shouted at one another about their haul, and, as if following a magical signal, took their toys, miniature trucks and tractors, fake weaponry and stuffed animals, outside to the yard that surrounded the farm house to play. Snow or not, they would spend the rest of the morning out of doors, coming inside for the occasional restorative hot chocolate, or to report to a parent the dreadful transgression of a sibling or cousin. The grown ups drank coffee spiked with brandy or whiskey, sharing gossip and playing card games with rules that were impenetrable for the cousins.
“We fought, we skinned knees and rolled ankles, we got cold and wet, we broke the toys we’d just received, we made each other cry, we made each other laugh,” Leo told Franny as they sipped unspiked Christmas morning coffee of their own together. “Some of the best days of my life, until now.”