Christmas in Tonawanda


This post is about a single Christmas, but its truly an amalgam of many Christmases. These memories were compiled over the course of my childhood, and over time they have come to blend together to form but a single memory, of many similar events, all of which contained some, if not all of the following events. So that is why I have not dated this post to a single year. It could have been any, or all of the years between 1974 and 1986.

My father’s mother was known to us as “Ma”, and his father as “Pa” although we were far from the hillbilly type. Dad had grown up in McKees Rocks, PA and on the Northside of Buffalo (Black Rock and Riverside) and had lived in several different rental homes along the way. When I was small they both worked in the DuPont factory in Tonawanda, N.Y. just across the line from Riverside, but at some point before or after Pa died in 1972, Ma had retired. The fact is that in my memory she is always wearing a house dress standing in her kitchen as we sit at the table talking and snacking on government cheese, with pepperoni and mustard. But this is not about those Sunday afternoon visits to Ma’s, it is about Christmas.

After opening our gifts at 20 Prospect, and going to Mass at St. Joe’s we would make the drive up to Ma’s. She lived in Tonawanda, not far from the Niagara River, in a 3 Bedroom Ranch home built at the very beginning of the 1960’s. I mention the three bedroom’s, because up until Pa died in 1972, there were 3 people living in the house. Ma, Pa, and Uncle Bobby, who wasn’t anyone’s Uncle, but an Army buddy of Pa’s that lived with them from the 60’s up until his death in the early 80’s. Each one of them had their own bedroom in the house, and like most things in my family this odd situation was never discussed. I grew up taking two things for granted, that odd living arrangements were “normal” in my family, and that my grand parents and their siblings were as crazy as bed bugs.

Ma and Pa had bought the house after living in apartments, and rental homes their whole adult lives. The neighborhood they settled in was just North of their old neighborhood, just beyond the industrial wasteland that abutted Buffalo. There were two different ways to get to their house from the Youngman Expressway. You could take the exit at Sheridan Drive, and take Two Mile Creek road past the sewage treatment plant, or you could drive past the Noco refinery to River Rd. and follow that down river to Two Mile Creek. Either way promised an olfactory experience. The smell of raw sewage, and oil is imprinted into my memory, and to this day reminds me of visits to Ma’s. That and the ever present smell of mothballs inside her home.

Since Mom & Dad liked to go to early mass, and get up to Ma’s by noon, this meant that on Christmas morning I would get to open the wonderful bounty of new toys that they showered me with (Being the baby, I was terribly spoiled😉 ) and then promptly put them down again, and get in the car. Of course, I could always pick one or two to take with me, as Ma never bought presents for the grandkids, or anyone to my knowledge. Instead I received money in an envelope. $1 in my early years, and $5 as I came of age.

When we arrived Ma was in the kitchen, already cooking dinner, and Uncle Bobby was in his chair in the living room watching TV. My Aunt, Uncle, and cousins would arrive soon after us, and the house would fill up with the sounds of women preparing dinner, men discussing the latest round of layoffs at the Chevy plant, and kids downstairs in the basement getting into mischief. Ma’s basement was our favorite place to play. It had been partially finished off, and boasted a large dining room table, where dinner would be served, a second stove & oven, the usual washing machinery, and Pa’s bar.

By all accounts my Grandpa was a character. He died before I was old enough to remember him, but the stories that have been told paint him as a fun loving, heavy drinking, practical joker. He was a bear of a man, who’d played semi-pro football in Pennsylvania during the depression. Everybody loved Pa, and he loved his grandkids. Well, my siblings anyway. I was too young for him to play with before he died. When they had bought the house, Pa had immediately begun remodeling the back of the basement into his bar. It being the early 60’s, the lights, couches, and decorations had a certain swankiness common to the age. The bar itself was a gorgeous piece of maple, that twinkled in the light of his beer & liquor signs. It was fully stocked, and in the little pantry behind it, he had cases of booze. We used to love to sit on the stools and play with the swizzle sticks he brought back from his trips to Vegas.

Since Ma didn’t drink, the booze meant nothing to her, and it was her standard practice to fill the punchbowl at holidays with 2 cans of Hi-C and a fifth of whatever was handy. Usually this was a bottle of Pa’s whiskey. This being the 70’s, the parents were content to let the kids drink from the punchbowl, so unbeknown to us, that slightly tart stingy taste in Ma’s fruit punch was making us drunker than skunks. No wonder we usually fell asleep shortly after dinner.

Schenley's Three Feather's Whiskey

Dinner was always a feast suitable for a medieval king. Two or three different kinds of meat, usually Turkey and Beef, sometimes Ham, and all of Ma’s unique side dishes. “Golf Ball” stuffing, Potato “peanuts” (dumplings), and creamed spinach. She was a wonderful cook, and like most women of her generation, never wrote down a recipe. Most of her “original” dishes came from memory, and would be lost to us as she aged, and that memory slowly faded.

After dinner the grownups would sit around the table in the basement, and talk grownup stuff, while the kids retreated upstairs to goof around in the living room, drink some more booze punch, and slowly become sleepy on the couch. The TV was never turned on after dinner. Instead we sat in the kaleidoscopic glow of Ma’s aluminum tree.

Her Christmas tree was the most beautiful tree in the world to me. Shiny silver aluminum, covered in bright pink & blue glass ornaments, it rotated slowly as multicolor spotlights shone up on it. The result was a psychedelic array of colors swirling around on the ceiling. Studio 54 paled in comparison to the light display. I miss that tree so much. No Blue Spruce, Balsam, or Douglas Fir will ever compare with that ersatz, jet-age, silver tree.

When night came, we’d pile back into the car, and make our way home to Batavia, stuffed, buzzed, and sated. Ma would stand in the window of her living room next to that glittering apparition, and wave goodbye as we pulled away from the curb. Then I’d lean my forehead against the window, and look up into the night sky as the lights of passing cars threw shadows across the backseat. Another Christmas come and gone.

As the years passed, time and distance slowly eroded the people around the table. Uncle Bobby died in the early 80’s. My Uncle Joe would stop coming altogether, as his relationship with my Aunt deteriorated. My siblings moved away one and one, and didn’t always have the means to get back home for Christmas. My Aunt sold her place, and moved into Ma’s along with my cousins who never could make it out of the nest. Finally, Ma’s stroke brought an end to it, and when she passed away, bad feelings between my Aunt and my family brought an end to our Christmas visits entirely.

The house is still there, and my Aunt still lives in it with my cousin Joe, who never did leave home. I drove past it on my recent trip to Western New York. It has changed some, but the neighborhood remains very much the same as it was when I was a child. I didn’t stop, and wouldn’t know what to say it I did. Dad passed away over 10 years ago now, and I haven’t seen or spoken with my Aunt since the funeral. They say time heals all wounds, but it also erodes things away. These Christmases only remain as memories, twinkling like an aluminum tree, across the wide canyon of time.

3 thoughts on “Christmas in Tonawanda

  1. I love reading this post and i cannot imagine how much you must have loved experiencing the real thing. I am always envious people with childhood memories of big family, noise gatherings during the various holidays. Envious on behalf of my kids I should say. They’d never be able to experience something like that in their childhood because my in-laws are, how should I put it, “white polite”…?

    Wishing you and the 20 prospect clan a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

  2. Great memories Tom. I am glad you are writing these memories down, as you won’t believe how your memory will fade when you get in your late 60’s. (of course I did alot to help fade mine). Have a very Merry Christmas with your beautiful family and make some warm memories for Karen and your children

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