My older sister Elizabeth said she would come to my Christmas Eve dinner – if I wasn’t inviting “a cast of a thousand.” Sister Elizabeth didn’t like being honoured with divided attention – she, who tended to command respect by demanding it – a technique that worked throughout most of our childhoods but grew thin in later years. It had been my more recent practice as a working lawyer to invite “strays” on Christmas Eve – newly separated parents from my family-law practice and persons I knew to be especially alone at Christmas.
My Christmas Eve was an open-house drop-in, with the fire burning in the fireplace, a pot of hot apple cider and cinnamon simmering on the stove, M&M and President’s-Choice hors d’oeuvres, a full house smelling of pastry and pizza and Christmas. I took a page from my godmother Filomena’s book, her Christmas Eve house always riotous with children, lupine-bean fights, the bulging hand-made Christmas stocking into which she stuffed dollar-store toys. Reaching into that stocking to extract an unknown pleasure had been the delight of my childhood. It wasn’t the food, nor the gifts, nor the stuffed and overdressed uncles and aunts, but the love – her love – the smiling and welcoming squeal with which Aunt Filomena greeted me and each and every one of her guests at the door, as if I were her Christmas present, someone she never expected to see that night and who had surprised her by showing up. I loved my Aunt Filomena.
“If you promise to come, I won’t ask anyone else, just our own little family.” Elizabeth promised me. And then two days before Christmas Eve, already having had her “fill of family,” Elizabeth suddenly announced that she wouldn’t be coming.
“Well, you and Marco are coming with me,” Scott Tartaglia announced, when I called him on the phone. “You are part of my family now.” My heart flooded with gratitude. It was the third Christmas Scott and I had been together, Zachary and I still warring and as yet un-divorced. Scott also helped me with my Christmas tree, that year, when I bemoaned the fact that Zachary had taken most of our tools, including the drill. “Well, I have a drill and I’m sure it’s bigger than his.” No argument there.
Until Marco’s father heard about it. Although Christmas had already been negotiated – an arduous, heart-breaking affair which ended in truncated hours in exchange for some “prime time” – the negotiation re-opened like a wound in words that came back through our son. “Dad says if we’re going ‘house hopping’ with Scott, then I should be with real family – the Hamilton family on Christmas Eve.” I’d traded Christmas Day for Christmas Eve to accommodate my older sister, Elizabeth, and now Zachary wanted to take Christmas Eve from me too!
My little sister, Rose, who was cooking the Christmas turkey: “You’re the mother. Marco should be with his mother. Not just on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day, too. Didn’t the asshole get Christmas last Christmas?”
“It doesn’t work like that, should be and must be and everyone’s rules and regulations making the poor kid miserable.”
I still didn’t know what to do with the ruination of Christmas, when Scott insisted I show up at his church for the early five o’clock Christmas mass which featured a real donkey – his kids, my kid, the two of us standing on either end of the kid clothes-line. Then Marco and I drove back to Scott’s house in our separate cars and Scott’s kids tumbled out of his white van and went inside. Scott knocked on my car window to say they’d be right out, just using the washroom. And we waited and waited, and Marco said, “What are they doing? I bet Stephen and Nicole aren’t coming house-hopping. If they’re not, then I’m not. I want to go home ….”
And just then Scott came out alone. He looked like a big man weighted with something he didn’t know how to say. I let down my car window and rescued him, “It’s okay. You do what you have to do. Marco and I are really grateful to you for trying.”
So, Marco was upstairs on his computer, refusing to come down, and I was downstairs watching It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, crying my eyes out, when I decided to stuff two large artichokes.
Chopping the onions, blowing my nose, washing my hands, then chopping again. My late mother used to say that by throwing the onion into the freezer before chopping eliminated the tears. Not having time for this and maybe wanting to cry, I wondered why it didn’t work this way for the human heart, making breadcrumbs in the Magic Bullet, adding parsley, salt and pepper, grated Romano cheese to the breadcrumb stuffing… Meanwhile, cutting the sharp little claws off the ends of the artichoke leaves, then thwapping the whole artichoke down onto the cutting board to shock the grip of its tightened fist, then floating the artichokes in salted water with lemon, by which time my fingers were black with artichoke juice. Then spreading the leaves and beginning to stuff. Finally, two stuffed artichokes sat upright in the Dutch oven. I drizzled these with olive oil, added water to their base, as to a Christmas tree, then lid on, into the oven to roast.
At close to midnight, just as Scrooge is praising the boy who came back with the biggest turkey for half-a-crown and Alastair Sim is giggling like a crazed man who can’t believe he’s happy, I go upstairs with two poured glasses of wine and invite the underaged Marco to join me in a midnight celebration.
Downstairs, with the first overstuffed artichoke on the table between us, our separate plates for the leaves, I ask Marco to light the candles while I explain the significance of the artichoke and how to eat it.
“The way you know the artichoke is done is to extract one leaf easily from the heart. You start with the outside leaves and rake the stuffing off with your teeth, discarding each leaf onto a separate plate. When you get down to the heart…” I take my knife and cut out the reski, the little spines, leaving the chalice. I squeeze lemon juice into the chalice, and offer the artichoke heart to Marco.
“And this little taste of heaven, this first gift of Christmas, I give to you, my son – my once, now and always love. And next year – we invite anyone and everyone – cast of a thousand!”
“Including my Dad?”
“Including your Dad.”
“Including Aunt Elizabeth?”
“Including Aunt Elizabeth.”
“Put it there, Ma.”
We clink glasses, notwithstanding rules, to the ghost of Christmas future, and tuck into the second stuffed artichoke.
Darlene Madott is the author of nine books, including Winners and Losers (Guernica, 2023) and Dying Times (Exile, 2021). She is a two-time winner of the Bressani Literary Award and has been short-listed for numerous other prizes, most recently the inaugural Nona Heaslip “Best Canadian Short Stories” Exile Award, and the Carter V. Cooper Award three times.