FEATURE | By Ilona Saari
Christmas in Connecticut
Christmas was a big deal in my family and, after dad died, mom wanted the holiday to remain special for my brother and me, so after 8:00pm service at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bayside, Queens, Long Island, New York, she’d throw open the doors to our rambling, two-story brick house for all our friends and neighbors. There would be spiked eggnog for the grown-ups… fruit punch for us kids… her famous crown roast of pork, mac & cheese, string bean casserole with those crunchy canned onions, salads, onions au gratin and luntu (a Finnish turnip casserole – yup, we were among the eleven Finns in America who didn’t live in Minnesota). Vi continued her open house tradition long after she retired to Connecticut and I had left college and moved to Manhattan to seek my fame and fortune. But even after I married, I always found my way ‘home’ every Christmas.
One year, while we still lived in NYC, my husband and I invited friends and their two bearded collies to join us for a Christmas in Connecticut. The basement of my mother’s house was semi-finished with a couple of beds – perfect for the guys and their dogs. So, we rented a car and drove up I-95 to the town of Danielson, just a teaspoonful of nutmeg away from the Massachusetts- Rhode Island border.
When we pulled into my mom’s driveway, snow was falling. Baking smells were wafting from her kitchen as we entered the house. Vi was overjoyed to see us – even the dogs who, after excitedly romping in the snow, began to melt all over the living room rug. We sipped hot cider, ate comfort food in front of the fireplace and marveled that the dogs didn’t attack the ornaments on the tree as they lay by the fire as if posing for a painting to be hung in an English hunting lodge.
While we were sipping, eating and marveling, I decided to take advantage of mom’s ‘free’ washing machine. If you’ve ever lived in an apartment and had to schlep your laundry down to a basement and stuff the washer and dryer with quarters horded somewhere in your lingerie drawer just so you can have clean underwear and linens, you know what it means to find a ‘free’ washing machine, but I digress. I turned on the water, added some of mom’s Tide and stuffed my grimy white down coat (imported all the way from Paris) into the machine.
Did I mention that Danielson is a tad rural and most homes, even cozy, tiny ones close to town had cesspools? Well, everything backed up… and I mean everything.
Did I mention that Vi had only one bathroom? Well, okay, now… none.
Though it was long past business hours, Vi calmly called whoever it is you call when you have a backed up cesspool and was told that someone would be out “first thing”… first thing the next day.
Did I mention that Vi had very nice neighbors? Well, she did. So, before we went to bed, we all ‘dropped by’ to use the ‘facilities.’ Vi brought a basket of homemade cookies.
As a kid, I had been a tomboy and harbored what some shrinks might call penis envy. What I really envied was the facility that boys have when using the facilities. I hadn’t had penis envy in years, but I did that Christmas. Vi had a very big back yard that ended in an incline down to the Quinebaug River. There was also a back door in the basement which led to that yard and incline and river. During the night and next day, the dogs and the boys availed themselves of that back door that led to the yard… that led to the incline… that led down to the river and wrote their names in snow. Vi and I ran back and forth to her lovely neighbors, each time having to make conversation we really didn’t want to make, but neither of us wanted to be squatting in the snow – if you get my drift.
Did I mention that the temperature dropped well below freezing? Well, it did. So, the next morning (Christmas Eve morning) when we were ready to leave for my aunt’s (who lived nearby) to shower, the car was frozen under a solid block of white Christmas. Wouldn’t start. At all. After Vi checked in to confirm her appointment with whomever you check in when you have a backed-up cesspool, my husband called AAA. He had to wait to call because cell phones weren’t invented yet.
AAA arrived at the same time as “cesspool guy.” The car was soon fixed, but not the cesspool, so we packed the car with the boys and the dogs and we’re off to auntie’s.
Did I mention that auntie lived in a retirement village in a tiny apartment with one tiny shower? Well, she did. The dogs, tails wagging, raced into the apartment taking up every inch of her seemingly 3’ x 3’ living room, knocking over a dozen Hummels lovingly displayed on top of every available surface. But my aunt’s a hoot and loved us all, so we found seats or spots on the floor not taken by dogs or her silver artificial Christmas tree and sipped tea in china tea cups and chatted with her while we took turns showering. By the time we’d all finished, hours had passed because we kept running out of hot water and had to wait for it to heat up again.
When we arrived back at my mom’s we found the bathroom restored to its former useable glory. The pork was roasting and the water was running in the kitchen. Normal holiday life was merrily rolling along. Family members soon arrived and, as we sipped spiked eggnog and devoured the pork, the luntu and the string bean casserole, no one could stop laughing as we regaled them with our cesspool saga.
It was a glorious Christmas in Connecticut.