We have always celebrated Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family. And for as long as I can remember, we have always had Turkey Tetrazzini for dinner, served on fancy holiday paper plates. It may not have been the most traditional or glamorous of Christmas meals, but I looked forward to it for 364 days of the year. The humble but hearty smell of the creamy noodle casserole welcomed me home to my grandparents’ house. It was the first sign that let me know Santa had made his customary early stop down Grandma’s chimney to fill the grandkids’ stockings while we were all at four o’clock Christmas Eve mass.
The grownups wouldn’t even let us think about touching any presents until after dinner. And as anxious as I always was to begin the “big rip,” I never resented the Turkey Tetrazzini. I savored each bite as my parents, my aunts, and my uncles engaged in conversations sprinkled with lines from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. While we all took turns imitating our favorite quotes from Clark Griswold‘s Aunt Bethany, who brought a new level of hilarity to dementia, my Grandma constantly vacillated between the kitchen and her seat at the table.
“Oh, foo. I forgot the butter for the rolls.”
(chatter from the table: “Is your house on fire, Clark?” )
“Here, babe. I’ll get you some more milk.”
(chatter from the table: “Is Rusty still in the Navy?”)
“Oh, foo. We’re out of green beans. There’s more in the oven.”
(chatter from the table: “Grace? Ohh…she passed away thirty years ago.”)
“I’m going to go see if the kids need anything in the kitchen.” (which really meant she was going to see if my cousin Mike needed more ketchup for his anything and everything.)
(chatter from the table: “Oh, dear. Did I break wind?”)
Before long, my Grandpa would pipe up: “Peg, will you just sit down and eat? We’re all fine.” And she would. My Grandpa was notorious for having the last word on everything. He was also notorious for mixing up all the food on his plate before shoveling it down. “It all goes to the same place,” he would quip. I, however, preferred my Tetrazzini, my green beans, and my bread in separate bites so my taste buds could do their thang. Call me a connoisseur.
Seconds of Tetrazzini were usually doled out while my siblings and cousins chomped at the bit. “Are you guys done YET? Can’t you eat any FASTER?” Finally, everyone would have their fill and my Grandpa would usually say something like, “Boy, that was good. But thankfully I saved enough room for dessert before we open presents.” Cue the collective groan from the kids as we received yet another crash course in patience being a virtue.
Christmas Eve is still the one time of year I have Tetrazzini. But my Grandma isn’t the one making it anymore; my Grandpa isn’t around to tell her to sit down and eat it. And though we still quote Christmas Vacation ad nauseam, dementia isn’t quite as funny as it used to be. Because now we have our own Aunt Bethany: my Grandma. And her dementia is not the quirky, lovable kind that makes her wrap up her cat and a lime jello mold to bring to Christmas Eve dinner. It is the kind that makes her feel lonely because she is wondering when her husband, who has been dead for six years, will come to bring her home. It is the kind that brings on terrible mood swings and makes her mean to the ones she loves. It is the kind that ate away at most of her memories of her three trips to Ireland, her favorite place in the world…so much so that I could barely share my recent trip there with her, the person who just years ago would have been beaming with excitement to see my pictures. And it is the kind that turned a woman who would rarely sit down long enough to eat some Tetrazzini into a woman who now hardly ever gets out of her chair.
But I know that’s not my real Grandma. My real Grandma will always be the one who froze the leftover Thanksgiving turkey so she could make a non-traditional Christmas feast for her family. A feast that could be made ahead of time, popped into the oven, and served on fancy holiday paper plates, saving her time that she could instead spend with the ones she loved and who loved her…even if she rarely sat down to enjoy it.
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