[Tonight, my husband, my daughter and I continue a tradition begun in 1959 of having tacos for Christmas Eve dinner. For years I didn’t make the connection between the meal and our Foreign Service journey: after all, we’d never lived in Mexico. It was not until I started reading my mother’s letters home that I understood that tacos were her attempt at normalizing a tradition begun during Dad’s first post in Caracas….]
Christmas Eve, Milan, 1959 (from Inventing Myself: A Memoir, draft)
I had memorized all the doors on the block down to our pensione. The paper store, the shoe store, the cigarette store. Halfway down the block we passed the Rinascente, where my mother had bought our Christmas ornaments, since our real ones were on a boat somewhere, along with our furniture and toys and clothes. I caught a whiff of the perfume counter as we passed the door.
The doorman stood in front of the pensione looking like a toy soldier in his gold braided red uniform. His brass buttons sparkled as he tipped his hat and opened the glass door.
“Buona sera, signora.”
My mother let go our hands and Susie and I skipped into the hotel, our leather soles slapping at the white and black marble floor. The lady behind the desk looked up. Her eyes were ringed in heavy black that matched her dark, high-necked dress.
“Buona sera, signora, ragazze.”
I loved that word. It was much jazzier than niñas.
“Buona sera,” my mother answered as she caught up with us.
The sounds of our shoes were muffled by the red runner that led to the elevator. My mother pushed the button, and the elevator came chugging down, settling behind the brass gate. She pulled the gate aside and grabbed the door handle, then quickly steered us into the cage. She leaned in on us as the gate clanged shut behind her, the two sides reaching for each other like fingers interlacing. I tightened my legs; still, the back of my head thumped against my mother’s coat as the elevator whined and bumped to a start, like a slow hiccup. We slowly climbed, the broad marble stairs zig zagging around us. Side. Back. Side. Front. The primo piano slid down from my forehead to my belly button to my feet and gone. Side. Back. Side. Front. The secondo slid past us. I looked up, letting my head fall way back against my wooly collar and stared through the lacy metal ceiling, following the quivering cables way, way up. I squinted shut the outsides of my eyes and the stairs became a soft ring of pale light. If I looked down, it was like falling.
The elevator jerked to a stop and Mom tugged the gate open. I jumped over the space where you could see all the way down and followed my mother and sister down the hall to our little hotel apartment. Mom unlocked the door and we walked into the dark. It felt strange to be alone there.
My mother turned on the lamp next to the couch and drew the drapes, stopping next to the bay window to adjust one of the decorations on the little dresser-top tree that My father had brought home a few nights ago. She clicked on the tree lights. The decorations from Rinascente sparkled and glinted off the wrapped gifts huddled under the fake branches. Susie’s little white felt angel dangled next to my lavender one.
“OK, girls, time to get ready for Christmas Eve,” My mother said. “Your father will be home soon.”
Susie and I shared the smaller of the two bedrooms. As I hung my coat up, I looked at the wool skirts and jumpers the cousins had given us last month. I missed my pink cotton shirt and the rest of my real clothes that were somewhere on the ocean. My mother said that they’d be here in time for the hot weather. I couldn’t imagine Milan ever being warm. My bones felt tight.
I tossed my sweater on my twin bed. Susie followed me out. I reached back inside to turn off the ceiling light.
Mom was at the single counter in the small kitchen opening wax paper bundles.
“Hallacas?” Susie said. The banana leaf-wrapped cornmeal meat pie was the traditional Christmas meal in Caracas.
“Well, almost,” my mother said. “I thought we might try a little variation this year.”I guessed Italians didn’t have hallacas. “We’re having tacos. It’ll be like making your own hallaca right at the table.”She handed me a bowl of grated yellow cheese and another one of chopped tomatoes.
The tangy smell of browning hamburger warmed the apartment with wonderful familiarity.
“As soon as your father comes home,” Mom began.
The apartment door clicked open. I looked down the hallway as Dad walked in.
“Do I smell Christmas Eve?”
He lowered his briefcase to the floor and swung the door shut behind him. The four of us were together. Something inside of me relaxed.
“Daddy!” Susie ran into his arms.
“Did you bring us anything from office?” I said.
“For my girls? Of course.”
My father walked us into the small living room and lowered Susie to the couch. “Just reach into that there briefcase and you’ll see a letter or two that came in through the Embassy. Hi, honey.”
My mother had joined us. They kissed, her dark head tilted up to his fair one.
“Buon Natale,” she said.
“That’s the spirit!” my father said, unbuttoning his coat. “What did I tell you, Nan? You’re going to take to this place in no time.”
My mother just smiled and took his coat.
“Any apartment finds?”
“Oh, that’ll come, right after New Year’s,” Dad said.
“Tacos, My father. Tacos!” Susie said, hopping off the couch.
“Some new tradition, huh?” he said, scooping her up again. “And what do you think our Midwestern relatives would think about that, my little bambinas? Sure beats lutefisk.”
“Lutefisk and lefse and Copenhagen snoose…” I began.
“… Brandt High School will loose loose loose!” He finished with me.
I wasn’t sure what any of that meant, but they were sounds from the farm in South Dakota.The rhyme was part of our private language, like Spanish was too.
“Did you really say that out on the farm?” I said.
“You bet! Dem South Dakota boys…”
“Okay, you guys,” my mother warned as she lay the last of the small dishes on the small dinner table. She disappeared back into the kitchen. “We’re ready to sit down.”
My father lifted Susie into her chair at the table. I climbed into mine as he went down the short hall to the bathroom. Mom carried in a platter of steaming fried tortillas.
My father reappeared. “I don’t know how you did this, Nan,” he said. “Tortillas in Milano?”
“Found these when we were in Washington last month,” my mother said, tossing two crisp tortillas onto each of our plates. She spooned some cheese, hamburger and tomato onto Susie’s plate. I piled some of each onto my plate and began building my own taco, anticipating the first crisp tangy chewy bite.
My father smiled at my mother across the table as they sat down. Her eyes smiled back.
“Shall we say a few words?” he said, reaching for our hands. “Like how very lucky we are to be here celebrating our first Christmas in Italy.”
He looked at me.
“Feliz Navidad father,” I said.
“Buon Natale,” My father corrected.
I knew I was using the old words, but they just felt so much more comfortable.
“Buon Natale,” I said.
My father nodded.
“Natale,” Susie said.
“And we’re thinking about our families in Minnesota and South Dakota,” Mom added.
My father gave my hand a squeeze. We dug in.
After dinner, Susie and I had our bath while Mom finished dishes and Dad read through papers from his briefcase.
I stepped out of the steamy tub. The cold of the white tiles sucked the soft warmth from the bottom of my feet as I remembered what I was going to tell Susie this afternoon. I helped her out of the tub.
“Susie, remember what tomorrow is?”
“Christmas,” she said, balancing on one foot as she aimed the other one toward her pajama leg.
She dropped to the little bath mat to continue wriggling her feet all the way down into the booties. I zipped up my matching one-piece pajamas and reached for the comb on the sink.
“And what do we get on Christmas?”
“Presents?” she said, looking up.
“And you know what?” I said, stopping the comb halfway down my head. “Some of the presents are already under the tree, cause they’re from My mother and My father and Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Jim.”
“I know,” Susie said. She reached for the tub edge and pulled herself up to standing.
“Okay, and then there’re other presents,” I said, looking her in the eyes, “Other presents that we don’t even see until tomorrow, until Christmas.”
“Yeah,” Susie said. She pulled at the zipper on her pajamas. “From Santa.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right! From Santa,” I said.
“Santa Claus.” She reached for the comb.
I held it over my head.
“Santa Claus. Santa Claus,” I said, lowering my face toward hers. “Don’t you remember? He came to our house. He was there. He walks right in and he knows we are here now. He is coming. Right here while we are sleeping.”
Susie’s mouth was starting to quiver. I couldn’t stop.
“And he’s going to see our tree lights and come right here and we will be sleeping and Mommy and Daddy will be sleeping and he’ll be here.” I realized I was almost shouting.
“No!” Susie wailed and burst into tears.
The bathroom door flew open.
“What’s going on here?”
My mother dropped to her knees. Susie let out a louder howl and flopped into her arms. Tears spilled from my eyes.
My mother reached one hand to my shoulder.
“What is it, honey?”
“I don’t want Santa to come in here,” I said, dropping to her lap.
“I’m scared,” Susie whimpered.
My mother stroked our wet heads.
“Okay, now,” she said quietly, rocking on her knees. “Okay. It’s okay.”
I felt her calmness seeping into me.
“How about if we turn off the Christmas tree lights? I think that might just do it,” she said. “You know we’re all together now. My father’s here and I’m here.”
We rocked together for a minute. Susie stopped crying. I took a deep breath.
“There, that’s better,” My mother said, lifting us onto our pajama feet and standing up. “Now, how about a goodnight song from your Daddy? What would you like, Jane?”
I knew right away. “Feliz Cumpleaños.”
“Sure, that’s one that Susie knows too, don’t you honey?” my mother said as we walked out into the living room.
“Bob, the girls will say goodnight.”
“G’night, Daddy,” Susie said, reaching up to kiss him.
My father put his papers into his open briefcase and leaned over to hug my sister.
“Good night, Daddy,” I said.
“Good night, signorina,” he said, kissing my cheek.
My mother switched off the Christmas lights.
“And they’d like to hear you play Happy Birthday on the guitar.”
“No, no,” Susie said. “Feliz Años.”
“That’s the same thing,” I said as Mom walked us to our bedroom.
We got into our beds. My mother tucked Susie in and then came over to my bed. She pulled the sheet up to my chin.
“Now, sweet dreams,” she said.
“Good night, Mommy,” I said, and gave her a kiss.
She turned off the light between our beds.
“Buon Natale,” she said and swung our door almost closed.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As I let it slowly out, I heard the first strums of my father’s guitar. The chords hung in the dark bedroom air like a hammock, swinging us steady and safe.
I swayed in the dark and listened for Fina.