my first christmas dinner at bubba’s

chocolatecakeChristmas of 1989, my first after having moved to New York City, would have been fairly lonely had my then brand-new-beau Bob not invited me to his home in Beaver Falls outside of Pittsburgh, PA to celebrate the holidays with his family, or should I say at “Bubba’s.” That’s what his family called his mother. Bob’s father’s side of the family was Serbian, and even though his mother is a lean, wise-cracking, back-woods Kentucky woman—someone who’s real name of Katherine or “Kitty” would have suited her better—nevertheless, as soon as her first grandchild was born, she was given the nickname “Bubba,” a Serbian term of endearment for grandmothers.

Now, Bob’s family is one of the wildest, most chaotic groups of people that this little son of a lockstep German woman has ever spent the holidays with, but that first Christmas at Bubba’s swirls in my memory as the wildest. The whole family was there, running from room to room, jabbering and worrying: grandkids with toys, cousins with casseroles, brothers-in-law in front of the football game, and his dad, a good-natured retired house painter who was recovering from a car accident, which Bob confided, had everyone a little more on edge than usual that year.

Bob was most nervous of all because, on top of everything else, he hadn’t told anyone in the family about “us,” and wasn’t sure if anyone would figure “us” out. To me, it seemed they were all so distracted by their own concerns and doing their best to stir up such a crazy-as-wet-hens celebration, that the little redheaded stranger in the forest of giant Serbians would be the least of things for anyone to concern themselves with that day.

Through the afternoon, I moved from one part of the house to the next, the quiet stranger politely observing, sneaking a cookie from a tray, listening to pieces of conversation and the various Christmas music radio stations playing in each room, and watching the movement of family members as they prepared the tables and the feast.

At one point Bob’s three sisters were chatting and giggling in the kitchen, with the smell of their Kentucky mamma’s dinner rolls cooking. Bubba was a great down-home-Southern-style cook, who made biscuits and gravy, and hams, and dinner rolls flawlessly without a recipe or a timer.

“Yum, don’t Bubba’s rolls smell good,” Bob’s sister Deborah Ann whispered.

“She’d better watch ’em or she’ll burn ’em,” his sister Suzie remarked.

“Oh, make sure their not burning!” his sister Joy gasped.

“BUBBA, YOU’RE BURNING THE ROLLS!” they all screamed as they ran for the oven and threw it open, only to find the creamy pale tops of the rolls cooking just fine on their own, no problem at all, several more minutes of browning still to go. They shut the oven door with another chorus of cackles, as the rest of the family, including Bubba, paid no attention at all to the uproar.

Then with dinner still a little while off, his sister Joy clapped her hands together and called for Bob to play some Christmas music. He’s the baby of the family, and being the baby and the piano player, he is asked excitedly every year to play, as if the whirlwind will draw to stillness for a few minutes to allow everyone to enjoy a sing-along. Yet, no matter how cooperative Bob was that year or any year since, no matter how willing to pull out the piano bench and find their favorite songs, the crowd was so busy about everything else that no one, not even Bubba, nor Joy who requested it, stopped to sing. It ended up that year and every year since just Bob, me and a quiet step-niece or two singing softly through the ruckus.

Finally, as Bob, the step-niece and I grew tired of trying to hear each other sing, as the turkey and the ham came out of the oven and started to be carved, as the last of the teenage grandchildren pulled into the driveway and the youngest grandchild ran a toy truck up Bubba’s leg, Bob’s older brother Butch called the room not so much to silence, but to a low enough din for his sister Deborah Ann to lead us in grace.

“We just wanna’ praise you and thank you loving Father God for bringing us together safely again this year,” she recited with the rhythm and drawl of an evangelical preacher.

I heard “amens” come up softly from above the roaring stadium on the TV and the grandchild who was still “vroom-vrooming” his truck.

“And we just wanna’ thank you for the food we’re about to eat and for Bubba and Daddy and….”

There was another round of more insistent “amens” as the group began to fan themselves with their empty paper plates. So, Deborah Ann finished off the prayer quickly to one big “amen” and the cacophony took back up where it left off.

Dinner was served buffet style and it was everyone-for-oneself. They all piled in, filled plates, and found a seat wherever they could around the big table or in front of the football game or on the steps or under the Christmas tree, all the while jabbering away. The whole group was never seated at the same time throughout the dinner. One person jumped up for seconds as another sat down with firsts. The restless children never asked to be excused as they would not have been heard and there was really nothing to be excused from anyway. And the babbling continued, no one seeming to really hear the other, until dessert.

About a half-hour into the meal, all of a sudden, unexpectedly, a hush came over the room as the chocolate cake parted its way through the crowd to the table. The dining room suddenly filled with every single one of the family members. Children left their toys by the tree. Brothers-in-law walked away from the game. And his sisters, who otherwise would have been worrying about the oven or the children’s plates, stopped fussing for a moment. They all quietly found their way into the room and gathered around the table, whispering reverently, “chocolate cake.”

“Looks like good chocolate cake.”

“It’s from Kretchmar’s.”

“Oh, Kretchmar’s.”

“Kretchmar’s chocolate cake.”

I half expected Deborah Ann to break into “We just wanna’ praise you and thank you, Chocolate Cake, for your chocolaty goodness, and for Kretchmar’s from whence you came…. Bobby, go out there to the piano and play us one of those songs about the chocolate cake!”

But instead the knife slid into the dense frosting and a cheer went up as if it were midnight on New Year’s. And the whirlwind continued as before, as everyone grabbed a fresh plate and a fork.

When time finally came to open presents, I sat back to watch the commotion. I was there by last-minute invitation, too late for the Secret Santa grab bag, too secondary to concerns about their father’s accident or gifts for the littlest kids. I myself hadn’t even thought to bring anything for anyone else, for which, my mother’s voice scolded me gently, as I settled into an obscure corner of the room behind the edge of the piano to watch the family distribute and react to the presents they had carefully selected for one another.

In my family, Secret Santa gifts would usually be presented one at a time, each recipient guessing the giver of their individual gift that had been purchased at exactly the established maximum, as everyone grinned and acknowledging how well each Santa and each recipient was suited to the gift. But, not so at Bubba’s.

In seconds, gifts started coming from everywhere. A frenetic mass of motion moved through the room, like the kind of tumbling animated cloud that cartoonists use to represent a brawl, with an arm shooting out here holding a shiny, crinkly gift-wrapped box, or a hand flying out there with a red or green envelope. And the whole crowd continued laughing, shouting, and jabbering, no one really hearing or seeing or acknowledging what one or the other was receiving. And I sat to the side watching, trying to make sense of the commotion in my small Germanic brain, wondering how anyone knew or appreciated the gift or the giver.

Then, suddenly a box landed in my lap with my name scrawled on it, then an envelope, then a plastic container of cookies, all with my name on them. Not knowing what to think, I opened the box and found a knitted scarf.

“This is…nice, thank you…whoever this is from,” I shouted cautiously into the room.

“You’re welcome. Hope you like it,” the voice of one of Bob’s sisters resounded through the hubbub.

“And the cookies,” I added a little more loudly, “the sugar cookies are my favorite.”

“The seven-layers are better,” another voice shouted back from across the room, and a hand reached into the cookie box and pulled out a chocolate ball, as another voice to my right said, “try this one.”

For a moment, the cacophony had pointed my direction, as it had for each of the members of the family in the room, and then moved on to the next recipient who also shouted “thank you” to a Secret Santa who shouted back “you’re welcome.” For a moment I had been, or should I say realized that I had been, the recipient of the generosity of the cacophony, of the joy of the chaos, of the silent blessing of the chocolate cake, of the choirs of step-nieces at the piano, and Bubba’s rolls that had baked just right.

Over the years I’ve learned to yell back into the hubbub and listen for the response, because in that moment so long ago on that first Christmas at Bubba’s I discovered how generous and thoughtful Bubba’s chaotic family could be to me.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

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