Thursday, October 13, 2011

Holidays at Aunt Anita's house.

The road to Aunt Anita's house.

My Aunt Anita's old house in Greentown, Pennsylvania was a magical place. Not the new house in Greentown in Tanglwood Lakes, with the big ceiling and fun kitchen floor and high backyard deck, although that house feels warm and cozy and wonderful as well in the way that Anita makes things warm and cozy and wonderful. 

Andrew & Anita.
Andrew & Aunt Anita, Tanglwood Lakes.
But I'm going back to the Greentown house dangerously close to Newfoundland, up Brink Hill. Other than my loyalty to my own house I grew up in, this was the best country house in the world. It was a big white house with a stone porch, a romantically long green lawn stretching down to a small road, the entrance to the driveway meeting a fence and a sturdy line of dark pines. The combination of the big lawn and the line of trees made the place feel open and secluded all at once. I remember everything about the inside of the house feeling dark, but in a warm and comforting way, except for the kitchen, which at the far end of the house was long and narrow and full of windows and light. 

There were steps down to a terrifying stone cellar, and an equally dangerous curved staircase upstairs to my cousins' bedrooms, which, when I was in elementary school and they were in high school, felt like a distinctly Cool and Old world I couldn't enter. There was Dusty, the best crotch-sniffing golden retriever there ever was. Or was he a golden lab? Regardless, one of those perfect American dream dogs. There were couches arranged around a fireplace where actual fires were normally burning, at least in my memory, and a small TV that usually had an Eagles game on. 

The backyard was also sprawling, and when you walked through some evergreen trees that marked a border of the property, there was a small neighborhood pool. This pool is so hazy in my memory that I almost wonder if I'm making it up. But in my hazy memory, I remember there never being anyone else there except for us and some old wrinkled Italian men retired from New York. I think there was a slide.

Anytime I read a good description of a good country house in a book, a lot of the times I picture it being this house. It was magical.

I may have mentioned before that being the child of divorced parents was especially awesome around holidays because you got to celebrate--and more importantly, eat--twice. Mornings spent with mom, nights spent with dad. Holiday mornings on my mom's side were either celebrated at our own house or at Aunt Barb's, or of course at my grandparents' house when they were still around; holidays nights on my dad's side were always at Aunt Anita's. For me, holidays were always a frenzied swirl of constant family and food. It wasn't until I left for college and started talking to more people and living outside of my own small bubble of existence that I realized not everyone has such a wealth of family at their fingertips, and such a wealth of good family at that, and I started to understand what an amazing deal I was given.

As the years went on, as people got older and busier and we weren't always all together and Aunt Anita graduated to the Tanglwood Lakes house, the Second Meal at her house in the evening became more of a leftovers snackfest. We heated up casseroles, made sandwiches out of leftover turkey and ham, plopped ice cream on leftover pie, and snacked on grandma's fudge or at Christmas, mom's cookies she always sent over with us.

But at the Brink Hill house, way back when, for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, there was always a full meal at the long table in the dining room. Even though my brother, sister and I had just stuffed ourselves silly at another relative's house hours earlier, and we'd already consumed what satisfies most people for an entire day, we settled in and once again passed around rolls, buttery potatoes, corn, some type of meat I usually only picked at unless it was covered in barbecue sauce, and on and on to dessert. Each holiday was a true, ridiculous gastronomic feat.

What I remember best about these meals at Anita's is how long we would stay at the dining room table, even after all the food was done. Anita, grandma, my dad, Jen, Jodi, Jeff, Sara, and me. We would often sit there for hours upon hours as the night got later and later. Once you moved into the living room and sunk down on those couches in front of the fireplace with the TV on, the conversations and stories could of course continue, but the comfort of the room would suddenly make that enormous amount of food you just consumed actually connect with your brain and your synapses and you would increasingly feel the need to sleep--and then not eat, ever again. But at the dining room table, you could talk for hours.

When I thought about writing about these meals I tried to remember what exactly we talked about for so long. I don't think it was always politics, as it so often was in the later Holiday Snacktime Years, although it could have been sometimes. Anita was one of the fiercest liberals I've ever known, in the way one has to be fierce when one lives in a small town full of diehard Republicans. There was probably a good amount of family storytelling, telling stories about the lakeside resort my family used to own, White Beauty, or re-telling stories from past holidays, or telling new stories from the last year. But then, I realized--duh. We did what my family has always done.

We talked about food. We talked about food for HOURS. We talked about food when we were eating food and when we were sick of eating food. We talked a lot about how much we could talk about food. Growing up in my family makes me now automatically judge anyone who isn't that into eating. Do you know there are people out there who quote unquote "forget to eat"? Not having time to eat during a busy day is one thing, but forgetting to eat is pretty much unacceptable. You can't forget to eat when you are constantly thinking and talking about food because food is AWESOME. 

While there's not much about me other than my last name that makes me appear authentically Italian, I feel that those hours spent talking about food around the dining room table at Aunt Anita's make me automatically more Italian than most of the cast of Jersey Shore.

Aunt Anita is also one of the world's most remarkably talkative people, and she could make a trip to McDonald's into at least a twenty minute story. In particular, I remember there were a few different times that we brought up the question, If you could bring one food with you to a desert island, what would it be? This question could spark an at-least two hour debate.

I was always the littlest kid at the table, and most of the time, I hardly spoke during these hours of conversation. One, it was hard to get a word in edgewise, most of the time. Two, I did feel like such a little kid that I felt most of the things I had to contribute, if anything, would sound stupid. But it was okay, because I would just laugh, which probably helped burn off some of the five thousand calories I had consumed that day. One of the only things we did better than eat was laugh. Sometimes, when I'm around really funny charismatic people now, I feel the same way I did around my family most of the time back then: they must think I have absolutely no personality, because they're so hilarious and amazing the only thing I can do is laugh, and then pause to catch my breath before laughing again.

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When you go through a language arts education graduate program as I just did, you are forced to do a lot of somewhat BS reflection, let me tell you, and a lot of things like "reading autobiographies" where you're forced to come up with a cute and moving story about who helped you learn to love reading. While I've always been blessed to be around voracious readers such as my mother and part of a family full of teachers, my story always came to a snippet of a memory extracted from one of these meals at Aunt Anita's.

I was small, and we had finally faced the hard task of getting our butts out of the chairs and clearing off the table. While people were cleaning things up and retreating to the living room to check on the Eagles game, Anita sat with me in the nook in the kitchen under those big curving windows and read with me. We read Hop on Pop. One of those naturally overly-enthusiastic teachers whose genes I don't actually possess, she was one of my biggest cheerleaders of my nerd-dom from the first book I read and the first terrible Richard Troll story I wrote. I don't know why I remember reading Hop on Pop with her after Thanksgiving dinner so well, other than for the fact that after all that hubbub and laughter and talk at the table that I quietly absorbed, for once, I got to talk, and somebody wanted to listen.

I feel grateful I got to tell her this, about writing about Hop on Pop and her old kitchen in numerous grad school papers, last fall at my brother's wedding. She obviously didn't remember it but was glad I did, and we laughed about it being such a weird little thing for me to remember. And then we talked about some good books we read that year. And then we probably talked about food.

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