by Mary Gamble
Christmas in a Pennsylvania coal town with a slightly off- the-wall family.
|‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the land – or anyway Wurtzberg, Pennsylvania – the air was filled with cries of “Zimno, no?”
Zimno is Polish for cold, and cold it was. Joe Snedeger, the local-weatherman-made-good, announced that it was the coldest December since 1989. It hadn’t gotten above 30 degrees since the first day of buck season.
Stosh Rackalevich went so far as to order a ton of coal for the coal stove he kept in the garage attached to his two-family home on the pretence of “you never know when the power’ll go out again like it did the year of the big snow.” Stosh and his wife, Olga, lived in the six rooms on the left with four of their five grown children. The fifth child, Junior, lived on the right side with his wife, Tiffany, and their twins, Rance and Raven. (Tiffany and her folks were big fans of the daytime soaps.)
Junior was the eldest of the Rackalevich siblings. He married Tiffany right out of high school and the twins were born shortly there after. This would be Tiffany’s seventeenth Rackalevich Christmas.
“Do we gotta, June? Christ. I never get to spend Christmas Eve with my folks. Your mom hates me. Why do I have to eat over there? She expects me to help her while your big, fat sisters just sit there. Christ. Aynosh is a cook yet. Why does Olga expect me to do all the work?”
“Give it a rest, will ya? Aynosh and Stella aren’t so fat. And anyways, Stella can’t cook for shit. You don’t want her touching any food you’d be putting in your mouth, do ya? Remember what she did with the Christmas cookies she sent me when I was in the Army? They set off the bomb detectors, for Christ’s sake. Even the camels wouldn’t eat them. I got one of those slingshot things the Arab kids used to toss rocks and slung them at the Iraqis. That’s really why we won the Gulf War! Stella’s a national hero. She should get a medal.” He grabbed the now laughing Tiffany and gave her a big, loud, wet smooch.
“Aw, Jeez,” smirked Rance as he entered the kitchen, “Why can’t you guys do that in the bedroom, like everyone else?” He grabbed a muffin from the counter and skillfully avoided the potholder his mother tossed at him.
Things were flying on the other side of the house too. A pair of woman’s jeans just missed landing on Olga as she rummaged through her junk drawer, looking for the perogi cutter.
“Aynosh, stop that. You are not going to wash clothes today. It’s Christmas Eve. Your grandmother is rolling in her grave and it’s your fault.”
“Aw, Ma. I want to wear these jeans tonight and their filthy. That damn dog barfed on them.”
“Which damn dog? We’ve got 3.”
“Does it really matter?” She paused, “It was Smokey.” Aynosh followed her jeans down the stairs into the kitchen. “Do you have anything you want washed?” Picking up her jeans she headed through the dining room toward the cellar door.
“YOU ARE NOT WASHING TODAY!” shouted Olga as she ran after Aynosh and snatched the jeans away from her. “You have other clothes. Why are these jeans so important?”
“Robert gave them to me,” Aynosh said softly. “I wanted to show him that I liked them.”
Olga took Aynosh’s hand and led her to the couch in the living room. “You really care about this Robert guy, don’t you?”
“Ma.” Aynosh sighed. “Ma. Well. Yes. Yes, I care. I care a lot. This may be the one. I think.” She sighed again. Olga felt a quiver of anticipation. Aynosh was always the confident one, the one who fought for what she wanted.
Aynosh sighed again, “The problem is, well, I don’t know how Robert feels. I mean, the sex is good, aw jeez ma, I’m sorry, that just slipped out. Anyways,” she continued quickly, “anyways, that’s why I invited him here tonight. I figured if he can take the brunt of the whole family on Christmas Eve and not break it off, well, then, he’s the guy for me.”
It’s gonna be a real old fashioned Christmas, Stosh thought, as a minor snow squall blew around him. All the kids’ll be home for once. Aynosh is bringing her fella. Maybe one of my girls will finally get married.
He was up on the Mechanical picking coal. This was a holiday tradition for him alone. He knew his kids thought he was a little crazy. But he had a connection with coal. John, his youngest, joked that he loved coal more than he loved Ma. Stosh would never admit it, but in one way, John was right.
Coal was in Stosh’s blood. One of his most treasured memories was walking on the Mechanical with his dad. It was Christmas Eve and they were picking coal because Dad wasn’t working and they didn’t have any money. They had just passed the Lokie tracks when his dad tugged on the back of his coat.
“Stosh,” he whispered, “Be quiet. Hide here behind the tree with the bucket.You be quiet now.”
Then his dad stepped out onto the tracks and said, “Hi there, Mr. Anderson, sir. No need to get riled. It’s just me Big Stosh Rackalevich from down on Main Street.”
“Rackalevich, what the hell are you doing here. You don’t work for us anymore. Are you stealing coal? You can go to jail for that you know.”
“No Sir. I ain’t stealing nothin’. I was looking for you or Mr. Blakely. I was wondering if there’d be work soon? I got five kids and one on the way, and it’s Christmas and all ..” His voice trailed away.
Little Stosh was scared. He never heard his dad talk like that. He was almost begging.
“Get the hell outta here, before I call the dogs. You greenies are all the same. You have all these kids and you expect us to support them. You’re on the list. We’ll call you when it’s your turn. Go on. Get outta here.”
Stosh’s dad walked down the hill while Stosh stayed where he was.
Mr. Anderson kept on walking the Lokie tracks and was soon out of sight. Only then did his father return. He put his finger to his lips and said “shush” and took the coal bucket. He motioned Stosh to follow him.
He didn’t speak until he got the creek at the bottom of the hill. “Stosh. Don’t tell your Ma that we met up with Mr. Anderson, O.K.? It’ll be our secret.”
He sat on a fallen tree and pulled Stosh to him. “Sometimes, when a man has a family there’s things he does that he wouldn’t usually do, …” He never finished what he was going to say. He just hugged Stosh and after a while they walked back home. Stosh never said a word about that night to anyone. He never told about how when he took off his coat his one shoulder was wet or that he heard his father sob.
His father did get work in the mine that February. He started coughing in March and was dead by Easter. Stosh never had another Christmas with his dad.
That was the start of his tradition of picking coal on Christmas Eve. The only time he didn’t was when he was in the Army. Even Olga didn’t know. She’d think he was nuts.
Olga was thinking about Stosh. “That bastard. As usual, he takes off and leaves me to get everything ready. Sometimes I don’t think he gives a damn about Christmas!”
“ You talking to me, Ma?” Aynosh called from the cellar where she was running the clothes washer.
“Never mind.” Jeez, thought Olga, I’m getting as crazy as Stosh, talking out loud like that. But what the hell, after forty years with him anybody’d be nuts.
She was rolling out the perogi dough for tonight’s Wahlia. This was the best night of the year. The kids’ll all be home and Aynosh is bringing her guy. Robert Whitbrid. Jeez. What a name. I guess he’s a WASP. Anna Rackalevich Whitbrid. The boys are gunna tease her on that, if she ever does marry him.
Tiffany will be over soon to start the rest of the meal. Thank God for Tiffany. Junior did well when he married her. But those kids of hers! Both of them are brats and I bet that Raven is no better than she should be, like Mama always said.
Anyways, Aynosh made the mushroom soup yesterday and the cabbage soup is on the stove. John and Teddy should be home soon, if they got a ride up from State College with someone. I wish they’d call and let me know. Where the hell is Stella? I sent her to the store two hours ago. It can’t take that long to find some straw for under the tablecloth. Mr. Mahalko always has some at the newsstand. And she has to go to the church for the oplatek.
Wigilia, the traditional Christmas Eve meal, was the highlight of the holiday celebration in the majority of the homes in Wurtzburg. Most of the population was Catholic, and many were Eastern European. Each nationality had its own traditions; in fact, each family had their own special dishes and customs.
The meal usually started after the first star appeared. Twelve different foods were served, most of it peasant foods – soups, fish, perogi, bread, potatoes. Sometimes straw was placed under the tablecloth to signify the manger. A round loaf of homemade bread with a lit candle in it was placed in the center of the table to signify Baby Jesus.
The oplatek is a special wafer, which is obtained from the church, usually with the nativity scene or other religious pictures on it. The family begins the meal, after a prayer, by dipping a piece of the oplatek in honey and eating it. Everyone at the table does this in turn.
After the meal is over and the final prayer is said, the candle is blown out. Some say that if the smoke flies straight up, the family will have a prosperous New Year.
Olga thought about the Christmas traditions as she put the perogi to boil. The best thing about traditions is that they never change.
“God-damn-son-of-a-bitch.” Stella struggled through the kitchen door loaded down with packages. “It’s a damn zoo in town!”
“And a Merry Christmas to you, too, gutter mouth.”
“Sorry, Ma.” Stella said as she took off her gloves, coat, scarf, hat, boots, cardigan and extra pair of socks. “It’s damn cold out there and in here too.”
“Stella,” Her mother laughed, “It’s always cold for you. I had to open the window to let out some of the heat from the cooking.”
Stella closed the window and began to put away the items from the bags she brought in.
“Where’s that lazy sister of mine? Getting pretty for Mr. White-bread?” She came very close to a sneer.
“You leave her alone. At least she’s got a fella!”
Stella grabbed her winter wear from the floor and stomped upstairs.
“FINE.” She shouted. “Let your FAVORITE child set the table.”
“Stella causing a scene,” thought Olga, “Another Christmas tradition that doesn’t change.”
The rest of the day proceeded on schedule. Aynosh, Raven and Tiffany helped Olga put the final touches on the evening meal, although Raven was none to happy about it.
Stella huffed about very pointly not telling people she was angry with her sister, mother and the world.
Stosh came down from the colum dump with two buckets of coal and joked that they’d be all Stella got if she didn’t lighten up.
John and Teddy called, finally, to let Olga know that they were at a gas station in Wilkes-Barre and could one of June’s kids pick them up. Raven went. It was better than cooking with the coots.
At five o’clock all was ready. The family was about to take their places at the Christmas table. There was a knock on the door. Aynosh flew through the kitchen to answer. It was Robert.
“Merry Christmas, Honey, did I miss anything?”