Under the Sun
A seat for diversity at the holiday table
KATE and Allen were kind enough to invite me to spend Christmas with them that first year I'd moved to a small town in northeastern Connecticut.
They really loved the holiday season. They got a kick out of their annual celebration that combined traditions of Kate's Catholic upbringing with Allen's Jewish observances for Hanukkah. Juggling work, a new baby and planning had them whirling in busyness for the festivities that would draw dozens of friends and family members.
Every day at the office, Allen would describe preparations. Wreaths and mistletoe needed hanging and the menorah, a polishing. Bread and cookie doughs were mixed and plunked into the freezer chest, ready for the oven come Christmas. Sausages, fish, chickens and roasts were ordered from the local meat market.
Their excitement was intoxicating, but I declined their invitation with a white lie, saying I would be visiting other friends. In truth, I felt I would be intruding.
I had just moved into an old Victorian house that had been divided into three apartments, two on the first floor, with the landlord's mother occupying the second floor. She was away for holidays and the other apartment was vacant.
On Christmas day, I rattled through the place, which consisted of a "parlor," as the front room was called, a living room, a bedroom, a huge bathroom and a kitchen large enough for volleyball.
The space made my scant furnishings seem pitiful, even though I had what I needed. There was a bed, a writing table and a high-back dining chair that I got cheap at a second-hand store because the legs had been cut down, making it perfect for a short person like me, but uncomfortable for others.
It had been snowing for days. Drifts and plows had piled thick banks at the bottom of the steep hill below the house, but the covered, wrap-around porch was dry except along the edges.
As daylight tapered away to evening, I dragged the chair outside and sat, my purple cape, matching knit cap and monkey-paw brown mittens staving off the chill. Ice crystals on a metal fence across the road winked gold in the street lights, red in the reflection from the neon A&P sign. Sound smothered by snow, it was quiet except for a chugging sound in the distance.
The chugging grew louder and soon a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Bug crept down the hill, stopping out front.
It was Allen, come to take me to the party.
He and Kate knew I'd lied. He stomped into the foyer, hustled me to change clothes and dragged me to the car. Forty miles and an hour later, I was in the midst of a noisy gathering of people who were Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Polish, Italian, German, Irish, Lithuanian, English, Welsh and I don't know what-all sipping egg nog, wine, hot apple cider and a peaty concoction called mead.
I added my "Mele Kalikimaka" to the season's toasts of "happy holidays" and "shalom" as well as others in languages I didn't understand. There was no sanctimonious huffing, like today, over voicing a greeting that some say slights the ostensible foundation for Christmas. Instead, there was celebration of differences.
My arrival signaled the start of dinner. Guests headed to the three tables pushed together to form one that extended from the dining room and into the living room. As chattering adults, teens and children eddied around me, I saw the setting was shy a seat.
Allen ducked into the garage, coming back with my short-legged chair. He'd grabbed it from my porch and stashed it in the trunk, just in case. I pulled up to the feast, my chin nearly touching my plate. Everyone laughed, but it was good natured. They were pleased to add one more to their ethnic medley.
A few months later, Allen found a new job. He and Kate and their baby moved south, turning over the lease of their house to me. I got more furniture eventually, but continued to sit in that chair, its rickety condition made strong by the generosity of that Christmas.
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Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org