Monday, December 24, 2018

“I Listen for the Bells” by Noel Robb



It was always the best night of the year. I waited, as kids do, with wide-eyed anticipation and wonder. I knew that Santa would come late while  all of us were fast asleep, but it was the evening that lay ahead, a special gathering of family steeped in tradition, that I waited for the most.

All of us had new clothes to wear. For me it was a dress with a full swirly skirt and a big bow at the back. The fabrics spoke “party”  rich velvets and shiny taffetas. My brothers had white button-down shirts with bow ties. They always hated feeling “choked” by anything around the neck, but for this, they didn’t make a fuss. The adults too, were finely dressed. Mom was stunning in her high heels and beautiful dress, along with a strand of creamy pearls. Dad was always distinguished in a dark well cut suit. I thought we made a fine looking family.

The drive to my grandparents’ home downtown in the city seemed to take forever as we stopped to let last-minute shoppers hurry by. My grandparents' home was modest and somewhat nondescript in its north end neighbourhood. But on Christmas Eve, it just sparked with coloured lights around the porch and red bottle-brush wreathes hanging in the front window.

Inside, the party would have started. The dining room table was stretched out to its maximum set with heavy linen tablecloths, the good china, and the crystal that my grandmother lovingly carried from her homeland.  My grandfather was literally in the Christmas spirit, or spirits, I should say, as he poured shot of cherry brandy or whiskey for my parents.

“Drink, drink, don’t be scared!” he’d say. My grandmother was in the kitchen, flushed with heat from the oven. Her apron was always immaculate, white, crisply ironed and proudly protecting her Christmas dress. This was her night to shine as she prepared a feast rich in the traditions of her childhood.

The meal never varied, never changed. It began with holy bread, broken dipped in honey and shared around the table. “May we always have plenty,”we’d say. Next came the soups, a rich white bean, followed by a savoury sauerkraut and wild mushroom. That was my favourite!

Everyone waited for the bobalki, tiny light balls of bread tossed in either a poppy seed and honey sauce, or the savoury onion and cabbage version. There was pickerel and salad, but never meat on this holy event. 

There was never room in my tummy for dessert, but who could resist red and green jello topped with homemade whipped cream and a tray full of my grandmother’s finest cookies…not to mention chocolates – Black Magic or Pot of Gold.

The stomping on the front porch silenced everyone and my heart would surge. The door would open and the sound of jingle bells came from the vestibule then finally the deep “Ho, ho, ho” as Santa Claus appeared at our dining room table! 

You see, he was a good friend of my grandfather, and always began his long night of delivering gifts to children around the world with some of my grandmother’s cookies, and a few shots with my grandfather. 

“Were we good children? “ Santa asked. “Oh yes,” we nodded solemnly, “so good”. And with his famous wink and a nod, he would be gone.

After the gifts were opened and the yawing began we’d settle in the back seat of the car for the ride home.  This was the best part of the whole evening. Dad put 900 CHML on the radio because he wanted to hear the news and it was always interrupted by a special report. 

Something mysterious had been reported at the radar station in the north. It looked like reindeer in the sky, pulling a red sleigh. We giggled with glee. Santa was on his way! 

As we passed the Eaton’s store on James Street, the pen that had been housing Santa’s reindeer for the month of December for children to feed and pet was empty! Further evidence, though I didn’t need it, that Santa soon would be here. 

No arguments about bedtime on Christmas Eve. We couldn’t wait to start dreaming.

Its been many years since I’ve worn a twirly taffeta skirt with a velvet bow. The Eaton store is long gone, and sadly, so have my beloved grandparents and my beautiful mother. Our family has added spouses and in-laws, children and now lots of great grandchildren. I have taken my turn at the stove, flushed in the preparations, wearing my grandmother’s immaculate apron. And while some things have changed, our traditions have not. 

There is always holy bread dipped in honey so we’ll always have enough. We drink shots to toast and honour our grandparents and lovingly try to replicate the bobalki so imprinted in our hearts. Santa doesn’t pay us a visit – I guess the world is bigger and he just can’t make the stop. But the little ones know he is coming and the excitement of the evening, of being together to share this special meal is really all that matters.

No arguments about bedtime. That still remains. But before I crawl into bed, I search the skies. I listen for the bells. I know he is up there. He knows I’ve been good all year and I fall asleep dreaming sweetly. Merry Christmas everyone.

Noel Robb is more of a reader than a writer. She has a Masters in Social Work and a keen interest in people and their stories. This is her first published piece. 

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1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your first publication. It was beautifully written! So vivid, I could picture you in your full swirly skirt with the big bow at the back and almost taste the bobalki. Heartwarming to know that you are continuing these traditions with your children and grandchildren. Looking forward to the next Noel Robb publication! Cheers, Davee

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