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At Christmas, We Find Magic In The Ordinary

(Marckus Spiske/Unsplash)
(Marckus Spiske/Unsplash)

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When I was growing up, my parents hosted a smattering of summer barbeques for relatives, but never parties for friends and neighbors. The barbeques featured menus that certainly were plentiful, but admittedly plain: pork steaks, potato salad, maybe that three bean salad for color. The few wine glasses that were in our house gathered dust more than cabernet, and cheese always was American — sliced.

The exception was Christmas. “Do you remember the ‘open houses’?” my cousin asked the other day.

Becky is a little younger than me, but we're close enough in age and lived near each other as kids so that we have the same family memory bank. When she brought up the open houses, she placed quotation marks around the words. She knew I would understand.

We put gifts on lay-away so hosting a free-for-all holiday buffet was extravagant.

How could I not? The Christmas open houses were memorable because they were so singular, rigorously prepared for and amped up.

My family was working class: waitresses and foundry workers, with mothers who volunteered for overtime and the night shift, and fathers who painted bowling alleys on the weekend for extra cash. We put gifts on layaway so hosting a free-for-all holiday buffet was extravagant.
My cousin and I remember the special foods prepared for the big event: peanut butter buckeyes (Becky still makes them), cookies with exotic bourbon extract and “high balls” for the adults (another phrase in quotations marks) made extra nice with maraschino cherries struggling to stay afloat.
On Christmas Eve, my grandfather always made a secret trip to the drug store for a bottle of Mogen David wine. The wine was a treat for the kids. He’d carefully pour an ounce for each of us and then flood it with cream soda. I had never tasted anything like it.

Apart from the food, what we most remember were the chores we kids were assigned in preparation for the big day. One, in particular, stuck out: buffing the basement floor.

I had long forgotten about buffing the basement floor at Christmas time. My cousin’s family and my own had identical unfinished basements in Missouri. When we became teenagers and started bringing over friends, our small living rooms didn't give us enough space or privacy to hang out. And Becky's three other siblings no longer wanted to double-up in rooms. That's when our paternal grandfather stepped in. He was handy with tools and put up drywall in our respective basements — constructing an extra bedroom here or there, converting what had been space for a hot water tank into a “rec rooms.” (Quotation marks again.)

I can’t recall one Christmas gift from those years, but I do remember the sorcery of the open houses...

As part of his makeshift renovations, Grandpa put down checkerboard brown and tan linoleum in each basement. For special occasions, including the open houses, we would rent a buffer from the grocery store and remove all the scratches and scuff marks from the floor.

I didn’t mind the task: there was something mesmerizing — hypnotic even — about being alone downstairs, carefully guiding the purring machine in circle after circle. Our family policy was to never buff in straight lines. Although moving in a linear fashion was faster, speed wasn’t the point. We were instructed, instead, to go slowly — don’t lose track of the loops, keep at it, make the tile gleam.

For the life of me, I can’t recall one Christmas gift from those years, but I do remember the sorcery of the open houses: juice glasses became high balls, basements into rec rooms, linoleum into luster. They provided a window into a larger world I could barely see.

Sometimes after I had finished buffing the basement and was alone with no one in sight, I’d take off my shoes, pull up my socks and take a running start. I’d slide all the way from the television set to my mother’s favorite chair. If I didn’t watch what I was doing, the streak would end in a crash against a concrete wall. But when it worked — for one December moment — it felt like I was skating on glass.

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Martha Ackmann Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who lives in western Massachusetts.

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