Preparing for a holiday meal began in earnest a day or more before the big event. We baked bread, rolled piecrusts, soaked beans, molded Jell-O, browned sausage, prepped vegetables, hauled down dishes from the top shelf, polished silverware... Note that I used the word “we” as everyone helped. One job only Dad could do, however, was make the trip to the liquor store for the rare bottle of wine, Mogen David Concord Grape, that graced the party.
By the big day the work was finished save for the meat baking, potatoes boiling, beans simmering, gravy thickening, and turkey and/or ham slicing. Humidity in the house soared and appetites whetted.
On Easter or Thanksgiving it wasn’t unusual to have 20 or more people at tables spread through the house. Even with big numbers there was always room and food for more. Besides extended family, elderly people from our church often came and at least once a couple of sailors assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station joined.
We served buffet style: all the different dishes set out on every available flat surface in the kitchen, and then diners filed through. As the time to eat drew close, Dad, my brothers and I jockeyed to be the closest to the door when the minute for the dinner announcement neared. Through one sort of subterfuge or another, Dad traditionally managed to be at the front of the line.
Not that Dad was selfish or rude: it was just one of his many running jokes and everyone played along. It was part of the Fleck family entertainment package. Instead of Abbot and Costello’s routine “Who’s on First,” it was “Who’s First in Line.” Besides, there was always so much food that no one missed out on a morsel. At the bigger gatherings, the people in the front of the line could get their plate filled, eat it and be back in queue for seconds before the first shift finished. Sometime between the first tidbit nibbled and the last crumb consumed, a moment of silence was called for and grace said.
Typically, the meal on Christmas Eve was smaller. Grandpa and Grandma Fleck joined in as well as my Aunt Loretta and her husband Joe, and later Carl. Notably missing from the competition to be first in line was Dad, who always had to work late on Christmas Eve. He delivered packages for Marshall Field, and employees couldn’t go home until the last parcel was delivered.
While we’d eat without Dad– Mom saved him a plate– we didn’t open presents until he arrived. Actually, we were allowed to open one of the gifts we’d given to each other the morning of Christmas Eve to keep us occupied/mollified. Picking the right package to open was always a challenge as most of our gifts were practical things like gloves, socks or boots. It’s hard to entertain yourself with a package of Fruit of the Looms. Although I’ve been there; done that.
After dinner and cleaning up, we’d play cards in the family room on the backside of our house. Between deals we’d race to the living room and check the porch where Santa always left his gifts because we didn’t have a chimney. Sometime in the evening we’d hear bells out on the front lawn, drop our cards and race to find a pile of presents, wrapped and waiting.
Mysteriously and coincidentally, Dad would walk through the back door and ask what the ruckus was about at the same time. “Santa just came,” we’d reply excitedly.
“I think I saw him,” Dad would dead pan, “but I thought it was a low flying jet.”
While Dad ate his supper we’d open the remainder of the gifts given to each other and then the one’s Santa left.
At least one year Dad came through the back door before Santa came. Horror of horrors. Old Saint Nick passed by the Fleck household. But then we heard the jingles and low and behold Santa came after all.
The next morning I found tracks in the snow leading up to our house. They looked like the tracks of man not a reindeer, and they led to the neighbors.