Christmases and Thanksgivings in Omaha for me meant no fewer than 10-12 adults and at least five children of varying ages, smashed into a house that was probably all of 800 square feet (my maternal grandparents’ house on Spaulding Street) and maybe SLIGHTLY bigger at Grandma Kramer’s house on 49th Street, just up the street from Gorat’s steak house (or, as my deaf Grandpa called it: “Go-Rats”. Very appetizing.)
The one kitchen table would be laden down with too much food and acted as the buffet once it was time to eat. The kitchen barely had enough room for one person to turn around, let alone three or four women all trying to juggle hot dishes coming out of the oven and managing the saucepans bubbling on the stovetop. The kitchen table being otherwise occupied meant everyone was eating from plates balanced on laps or, if you were lucky, you got use of a metal TV tray that was just a whisker away from being toppled by an errant toddler or finally folding over on its own rickety legs that were bent and misshapen from having been stuffed in a closet the other 364 days of the year.
And while Christmas was usually cold in Omaha, the doors and windows were always open – partially to let out some of the heat from the ovens and the bodies, but also to let in some fresh air to clear the Pall Mall haze that hung three feet from the ceiling (HELLO … it was the 70s. EVERYBODY smoked. I also miraculously survived getting to said grandparents’ house without benefit of a car seat, or even a seat belt, and I’m here to tell the tale.)
But I loved those holidays, and playing with cousins that I seldom saw the rest of the year. I remember playing Monopoly with my cousin Laura under the kitchen table, because setting up the board anywhere else meant we were in somebody’s way. Going to Grandma Kramer’s meant great anticipation to see Kellie, Dee Dee, and Billie Jo who were from far far away (when you’re five, Iowa seems very very far from Omaha), and pestering Uncle Bill and Aunt Karol to please please PLEASE play Mousetrap with us? (Especially after we ventured into Grandma’s very creepy basement to get it out of that dank, dark closet with the one lightbulb on a pull string …)
Childhood holiday memories for Skip are very different than mine. Skip’s parents divorced when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother and his maternal grandparents. While his dad remarried, gaining Skip step-siblings and eventually a brother, Skip was raised as an only child – and his mother was also an only child. So holidays with his mom’s side of the family meant small, quiet get-togethers. Those times he did spend with his dad’s extended family came with some guilt and angst from being with one side of the family over the other, so that tempered some of the joy and excitement he might’ve otherwise felt.
The first time Skip experienced a Kramer gathering, it was a bit of a shock. It’s wasn’t quite Toula and Ian, but having come from different families and traditions, it was different. There were a lot of people, a lot of chaos, a lot of laughter and a LOT of snarkiness. We’re the family that sat around one beautiful summer day and played word association … my cousin Shelly said ‘bugs’, cousin Nikkie said ‘annoying’, Aunt Sharon said ‘mother’. Grandma Kramer was next up and not surprisingly, the game came to an abrupt halt. And while Grandma was NOT amused, the rest of us laughed ourselves into tears. Underneath all of that snarkiness and laughter is a lot of love for one another, but to an outsider … we do take some getting used to.
So now we’ve got our only child of an only child, and the roles are a bit reversed: while my brother has married, there are no Kramer cousins, but down in Austin there are three sets of aunts and uncles and any family gathering brings as many as seven cousins of varying ages. The Austin houses are bigger, meaning everyone actually gets to eat at a real table, but in spite of the bigger kitchens, everyone is still in the way of pulling something out of the oven or off of the stovetop. There’s no smoke haze over dinner, but the joyous noise and chaos are the same – and there’s still too much food. The best part now is that Katie gets to make her her own memories. Looking for Grandma Betty Jo’s money-loaded Easter eggs in the yard, and Uncle Kip walking in, dressed as the Easter Bunny. Jumping on the trampoline with the rest of the cousins, and saying good-bye even as she’s counting down the days until the next visit. Skip understands, now, what my childhood memories are made of, and we’re both grateful to the extended family in Austin that gives Katie that opportunity for joyous noise and chaos.
The good things never change.