Grandma Pilsworth lived in a small, narrow two-storey semi-detached house on Concord Avenue—then, the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy. She had lived in the house for the better part of her life and had seen the working class neighbourhood’s ethnic mix change to reflect the federal government’s immigration policy of the day. The street character switched from Anglo-Irish (her background) to Russo-Euro-Jewish to Chinese, Italian and, near the end of her life, Portuguese. To us kids, she was Grandma. To the neighbours, she was Nona.
It was dark when we six (mum, dad and four kids), pressure-packed into the family car, swung off cross-city from Annette Street onto Concord Avenue. My father let us out in front of Grandma’s house and then drove off to find a place to park—somewhere, I knew he was hoping, this side of Buffalo, New York. Grandma’s Italian next-door neighbours, always kind, generous and attentive to her needs, had shovelled her walk and cement porch, and they waved a cheery greeting to us as they welcomed their guests to dinner.
We nodded perfunctorily as we climbed the porch steps. Inside, the five of us, bulked out like dirigibles in our winter wear, crowded into a vestibule just a shade wider than the door frame and as long as its height. Sharing the limited space with us was a clothes tree piled top-heavy with coats, hats and scarves. Below it sat two flooded rubber mats, holding in place an awesome pile-up of winter rubbers, boots and galoshes. No sooner had we begun the “sorry-sorry-sorry” chant (elbowing each other as we struggled to wriggle out of our coats) than seasonal felicitations greeted us from the adjacent living and dining rooms.
From experience, we instinctively covered our heads, the best (and only) way to defend against the traditional aerial attack of presents chucked our way. In a lull in the barrage, we beat a hurried retreat upstairs to pile our coats on a bed; then descended again into the bowels of hell (my take) or the merry melee (everybody else’s) with gifts to civilly lay beneath the Christmas tree—a task more difficult than licking your elbow.
The living room, no bigger than four bus shelters grouped together, contained an upright grand piano (tuned by a duck), a couple of overstuffed (with upholstery and people) chairs and a small table bearing cut-glass bowls of nuts, dishes of pellet-like cinnamon candies, and a big, fused clump of rock candy (put out every year) that tasted like mothballs.
A black and white TV, beaming the perennially icky It’s a Wonderful Life, had a tinted filter—blue at the top, yellow in the middle and red at the bottom—taped over the screen. This device was supposed to approximate colour TV. No one twigged to the irony that the movie being shown was originally black and white.
Against the far wall stood a Fuller-brush artificial tree, sprayed glossy green. This aberration was heavily festooned with silvery frosted globes and shiny gold, red and green bulbs all set aglow by strings of whistling tree lights. Completing the room was a couch upon which my Uncle Jerry sprawled; two of his five sons stacked upon his substantial stomach like a display of mattresses.
Soon the room swelled beyond fire-marshall capacity with the entrance of my father’s brother and his family. In all, there would be 19 of us for Christmas dinner. To handle the crowd, my grandmother butted a couple of card tables against the dining room table, extended to its limit with table leaves. Then she attempted to match the levels with quilt-like underpads, finally unifying the surfaces with two overlapping linen tablecloths. Upon this she placed filled beverage glasses, cutlery, napkins and the dreaded Christmas crackers.
Each table item leaned at oblique angles to one another, as if on levels dictated by a flattened-out piece of crumpled paper. My ever-present fear was that, by accidentally bumping the table, the items would careen into each other like an unwarranted demonstration of domino and chaos theory.
When all were seated, my grandmother, swaying like a sailor, carried the turkey from the kitchen in a pan she held at an angle more suitable for sprinkling plants with a watering can. Why the turkey never fell out is anyone’s guess. Ditto why the table settings didn’t topple when my father wobbled the table carving the turkey. Too much food and too little stomach room compelled us kids to sneak major helpings from our plates onto plates next to us. This manoeuvre had to be carried out when attention wasn’t on us.
We were particularly grateful for the diversion created when our Great-Uncle Wilf removed his teeth to tackle the mashed potatoes. Later, in the kitchen, my Uncle Jerry’s wife Carol took charge of washing the dishes, relegating the rest of us to tea-towelists. Every year we driers pulled the same stunt on poor Carol. And, true to form, without fail, the third time the same bowl, dish or pot made its way back into the suds, she brusquely downed the dish cloth and hollered “Hey!”
When it was time to leave, a quick gift exchange preceeded the hunt for matching boots and mitts. For instance, those “gifted” with hand-knitted socks louder than most Las Vegas floor shows traded them for aftershave lotion in bottles shaped like vintage cars.
Re-bundled up, the “thank-yous” bestowed, we trudged out into the biting cold, off to the car, which was, my father assured us, only 12 blocks way.