Christmas 1995…When Aunt Gloria Came to Dinner

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” informed Clarence, second-class angel to George Bailey.

                “Is that true, Andy?” asked Linda, the five-year-old, never-does-anything-wrong, Queen of the House, brat sister of mine.

                I was in no mood to answer. Neither was my year younger, nine-year-old brother, Michael. We were still stewing over the unfair chain of events that led up to our punishment. It all started at breakfast, when Dad laid down the law.

                “You kids have been at each other’s throats ever since Christmas vacation started,” he said, “And frankly, your mother and I are getting sick and tired of this constant bickering. You’ve been asking us what we want for Christmas. Well, I’ll tell you: Peace in this house! I don’t want to see another day like yesterday. Understand?”

                We nodded.

                Mom gave us additional instructions: “I especially want all of you to be on your best behavior when Aunt Gloria and Harold come to dinner this evening. Make him feel welcomed in our home.”

                “Who the heck is Harold?” Michael asked.

                “Now that Aunt Gloria has taken that new job in the city, she rides the train every day,” Mom responded, “Harold is an engineer that she met at the station. They’ve become friends and we’ve invited them to Christmas Eve dinner.”

                “An engineer! Oh wow!” Linda exclaimed. “Do you think he’ll let us drive his train?”

                “Not that kind of an engineer, Princess,” Dad chuckled, “He’s a civil engineer.”

                “Oh, what’s a cymbal engineer?” Linda questioned.

                “Civil engineer,” I corrected, “C. I. V. I. L…it means he helps people to respect each other, like civil rights.”

                My brother butted in, “Nu-uh!”

                “Yuh-huh!” I insisted, “It means be nice to people, as in keep a civil tongue in that bone head of yours.”

                “Does not,” he retorted, “What about the Civil War, huh? What do you think they did? Run up to each other and say, ‘Sorry ol’ chap. Nothing personal, but I must shoot you.’ BANG! AAAUUGH!” Michael fell dead on the table.

                “OK, you guys,” Dad interrupted, “You’re both wrong. A civil engineer works on big construction projects: airports, harbors, damns, things like that.”

                “You mean…he’s a DAM builder?” Michael joked.

                “Mom! Mike said a curse word!” Linda declared triumphantly, the self-appointed censor.

                “Alright, that’s enough,” ordered our mother, not even taking her eyes off the flour she was measuring for her next batch of dinner rolls.

                “What did I say?” asked Michael in mock innocence.

                “You know,” Mom replied, “And for your information, Harold is working on the new 21st street bridge.”

                “You mean that really tall one downtown? Cool!” I exclaimed.

                “That’s the one,” Dad replied.

                “Hmm,” I pondered, “I wonder what it would look like if you spat off the side.”

                “Andy!” Mom said in shocked disgust.

                “Do you think he’ll let us go on his bridge?” Linda eagerly asked.

                “Yeah,” Mike answered, “You might even be able to collect the tolls. You could stand by the exact change booth and people could throw quarters into your big fat mouth. We’d be rich!”

                I laughed so hard that I fell off my chair gasping for air. Linda started crying.

                “Congratulations, gentlemen. You’ve both made couch arrest,” Dad announced, “Michael, for that thoughtless remark, and Andy, for enjoying it too much.”

                Couch arrest may not sound too tough, but it’s true torture lies in the fact that you must watch a program that Mom or Dad picked. Usually, it’s a classic or something educational that they know would never watch on our own. Warden’s choice: It’s a Wonderful Life. It wasn’t even colorized…YUCK! Dad slammed the tape into the VCR and our sentence began.

The story is about this guy, George Bailey, who has spent his entire life helping people in this dinky town in the 1940’s. then, through no fault of his own, on Christmas Eve, the bank examiner finds that George’s Savings and Loan Company is missing a ton of money. George is looking at some serious jail time. He decides to jump off a bridge into an icy river and end his life by becoming a popsicle. Then, this second-class angel, Clarence, who looks like the biggest wimp this side of the Pearly Gates, gets sent down to keep George from the “Big Stiff” by showing him what a wonderful life he’s living. If Clarence can pull it off, he earns his wings and becomes a first-class angel. Which brings me back to the beginning, with my stupid sister asking her stupid question about this stupid angel in the stupid movie!

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

                “Is that true, Andy?” inquired Linda.

                “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said, annoyed, “How the heck should I know? Go ask Dad, Miss Goodie-Two-Shoes. You’re not on couch arrest!”

                She slid off the chair, snatched her doll, and huffed away. Mike chucked a pillow at her and it bounced off the back of her head. She turned and threatened, “I’m telling! Daddy. Daddy!” She ran off to track him down. He was in the basement, wrestling with the electric trains. It’s the same thing every Christmas: they never run right, and Dad quickly gets frustrated. Mike and I have learned to stay out of his way when he goes working on the railroad. We could hear Linda stomping down the bare wooden steps on at a time. Then, suddenly, she raced back up.

                “Mommy, Mommy!” she yelled, “Daddy said a curse word. If I tell you what it was, do I hav’ta go on couch arrest too?”

                Mom came into the room and met her at the top of the steps. “Whisper it in my ear, sweetheart…he did?” Mom said in mock surprise, “Well, I hope YOU never grow up to say anything nasty like that!”

                “Are you going to put Daddy on couch arrest?”

                “Weee’ll see. I’ll have a talk with him,” Mom answered, “You run along.”

                “OK, Mommy. The boys were being mean to me again and they hit me with a pillow.”

                Mom gave us a look. “You boys better watch it or you both are going to be sorry,” she warned as she went down the basement steps.

                “Honey,” she called down.

                “I swear, Sara, I didn’t know she was there.”

                “I know…Did you happen to see my wedding ring?”

                “Well, darling,” my father answered in a snippy tone, “where did you leave it last?”

                “Golly gee, dear, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be down here having this pleasant conversation with you.”

                “Then no, cupcake,” he curtly replied as he threw some track onto the plywood table, “I have no idea where your wedding ring could be.”

                “I think that cranky boy has had enough play time for now. Maybe he should put his toys away and put his suit on so we won’t be late for church this morning.”

                “Yes, mother,” he disdainfully replied.

                “Thanks for nothing, Drew,” Mom snapped and stomped up the stairs.

                “While you’re up there, don’t forget to take your Midol!” Dad shouted after her.

                We were serving couch arrest, minding our own business, throwing pillows at each other when nobody was looking when Dad called down from the upstairs hallway.

                “Sara, have you seen my money clip?”

                “Well, where did you put it last, sweetheart?”

                “C’mon, Sara. I had $120 clipped in it. I had it when we went out with the D’Orazios last week.”

                “Don’t look at me,” Mom answered, “I thought that I only had two boys and a little girl to take care of.”

                “OOOOOH,” we chorused from our cushioned jail.

                Dad stormed down the steps. “You boys shut up and get ready for church. Stop the movie where it is. You can finish couch arrest later. And don’t let me catch either of you telling anyone what you heard,” he threatened.

************************************************************************

                Church was bor-or-oring! Pastor said something about God giving Jesus, His greatest gift, to the world so that there could be peace on Earth and good will toward men…Yadda, yadda, yadda. I really didn’t pay much attention to it. I couldn’t wait to leave. Even couch arrest was better than this! Worse yet, because Christmas is on a Monday this year, we have to go to church twice today. Once for regular Sunday Mass and again tonight to get our Catholic duty out of the way because NOBODY feels like going to church on Christmas Day. I liked it better last year when Christmas fell on a Sunday, then we got a two-for-one.

                All the way home, the atmosphere in the car was wound up tighter than Big Ben’s main spring as my parents argued over Mom losing her wedding ring and Dad’s misplaced money clip. No peace on Earth or Christmas joy here. However, it seems that Linda had been listening to the pastor’s sermon. As the movie neared its sappy ending, she came into the living room and stood right in front of my field of vision.

                “Move, will ya!” I snapped, “I wanna see if the guy goes to jail.”

                She obediently moved. He didn’t go to jail but winds up with a whole hat full of money instead! A bell rings. Clarence gets his wings. Everyone smiles, kisses, and hugs each other as the movie ends leaving you with that warm glow feeling that nice things happen to good people. Yeah, right.

                “What do you want creep? Hurry up! Couch arrest is over,” I said, finally giving her my attention.

                “I want you to wrap this,” she said as she held up a plastic vending machine acorn that had one of those cheap adjustable band rings inside.

                “Why should I?”

                “God gave us baby Jesus as his special present for Christmas so we could have peace on Earth. Mommy lost her wedding ring. Maybe if I give her my special ring, she’ll stop being mad and stay married to Daddy.”

                “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

                Mike chimed in, “At least she’s giving Mom a present. We didn’t give them anything.”

                “For crying out loud! Not you too!” I exclaimed, “Look, you heard them this morning. All they want is peace. That’s all. And that’s just what I’m gonna giv’em. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and all I gotta do is put up with you slimes until after I see what’s under the tree tomorrow. And if I’m in a really good mood, maybe I’ll wait until the day after before I start beating the snot out of you again.”

                “Still, we should get them something,” Mike insisted, ignoring my last statement.

                “How, Einstein? Aunt Gloria’s going to be here in a few hours, and I don’t think they’d be too happy to drive us to the store right now.”

                “Well, let’s think about this for a minute,” Mike thoughtfully said, “If we all pitch in, Mom’s present is already done. How about it, Linda? We’ll say your present is from everyone, and you can say that our present to Dad is from you.”

                “If you wrap it,” she thrust the ring at me.

                “OK, OK, I’ll wrap it. It’s still a dumb idea,” I persisted, “Dad lost $120 and his money clip. What are we supposed to do, give him Monopoly money wrapped in a rubber band?”

                “No,” Mike answered, “I’ve got that gigantic paper clip, you know, the one that’s three inches long? We can each put $5 in it—not you, Linda—and we can give that to Dad.”

                “I still think it’s dumb, but I’ll go along. Linda, give me your ring. Now, go into the kitchen and steal six cookies. The good ones, the ones Mom just baked this morning.”

                “Steal six cookies! What for?” she asked.

                “Wrapping fee. And, one last thing, Michael.”

                He looked at me suspiciously, “What is it?”

                “Lend me $5.”

                I snuck into my parent’s room and groped into the far corner of their dark closet for the wrapping paper. My hand found a roll and I ripped off a large piece. OK, so it said “Happy Birthday” on it, I’d just turn it over and use the blank side. Five minutes later, we had all gathered on my bed and I was busily eating my cookies. Of course, I gave Mike and Linda one. After all, it was Christmas.

                The money clip wasn’t so hard to wrap, but that stupid acorn kept slipping around. I had to wad a whole lot of paper around it and use about half a roll of tape to keep it from popping out.

                “Like to use a little paper with your tape?” Mike prodded.

                “Shut up! It’s wrapped ain’t it?”

                “Wrapped? I’ve seen less windings around an old baseball.”

                “Knock it off! If it wasn’t for ‘Peace on Earth,’ I’d make you lick up all these cookie crumbs on my bed.”

                “Ooooh, I’m so scared,” he challenged.

                I launched Mom’s present at his head. He ducked. It hit Linda instead and stuck to the Sant Claus face on her sweater like a giant zit.

                “Hey, watch it you guys!” she yelled as she peeled her precious present off her sweater. Mike and I laughed so hard that we forgot about fighting.

                We stole down the steps and waited in the living room, while Linda went off to get Mom and Dad.

                “They said they’d be right over,” she reported.

                Three minutes passed, close to an eternity in kid time, and still no Mom or Dad.

                “Where are they? This is ridiculous!” Mike blurted out.

                “This whole thing is ridiculous,” I repeated, “It was a dumb idea from the start…”

                “We’re still gonna do it,” Mike insisted, “We just have to find a way to get them over here. Hey, Linda, yell real loud like we’re killing you or something. That oughtta work.”

                Linda giggled, plugged her ears, and let out two piercing shrieks. Dad bounded up the basement steps while Mom raced in from the kitchen.

                “What happened?”

“Are you alright?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Linda laughed, “we just wanted to give you your Christmas presents.”

“You nearly gave us heart attacks for Christmas, young lady,” Dad scolded, “If you ever…”

“We had to,” I interrupted.

“Why?”

“Peace on Earth,” I answered and handed them their presents.

“Linda had the idea,” Mike explained to Mom, “Since God gave us Jesus for Christmas so that there could be peace on Earth, then if we gave you and Dad a present, you wouldn’t be mad at each other anymore.”

“We’re not…Oh, you kids shouldn’t have!” Mom happily said. Things were going so well until she broke a fingernail working through the wrapping. Mom started to say something under her breath but caught herself. “Oh, it’s beautiful! But, Linda, isn’t this your ring?”

“You lost your ring, Mommy, and I wanted you to stay married to Daddy, so I gave you mine. Do you like it?”

“Oh yes, honey!” she gushed as she fitted the band to her finger. She held it up and admired it on her hand. “It’s gorgeous!”

“And look what I got!” Dad announced and held up the folded money in the large paper clip.

“It’s supposed to be a money clip,” I clarified.

“Hmm, how did you kids know that I needed a money clip?” he teased with a wink. “Thank you. I’ll just hold onto the clip for a while. You can keep the money.” He handed each of us a $5 bill.

“I’ll take that!” Mike said as he snatched it from my fingers.

Dad gave us a curious look.

“I wrapped the presents,” I said sheepishly.

Dad turned to Mom and said, “Sara, I’m sorry I snapped at you this morning.”

“I know. I’m sorry too,” she said, and they hugged each other. Misty eyed Mom gave each of us a long hug. “Now, listen. Aunt Gloria will be here soon. Keep up the good peace on Earth work and try to stay clean at least until dinner.”

We agreed. Our parents left to finish the last-minute details before Aunt Gloria and Harold arrived as we watched T.V. After that, I had no intention of starting a fight. There was peace in my heart.

************************************************************************

A short while later, there was a knock.

“It’s Aunt Gloria!” Linda squealed. She raced to the door and opened it.

                Aunt Gloria came in with a rush of cold air. Her wind-kissed cheeks stood in rosy contrast to her shoulder-length, curly, dark hair and brown eyes. She was very pretty and our favorite aunt. In fact, when our family goes grocery shopping, Linda makes my parents buy this certain kind of olive oil because she thinks that the girl on the bottle IS Aunt Gloria.

                Linda attached her with a flying hug. Aunt Gloria lost her hold on the storm door and shut Harold outside by accident. Mom and Dad came to the rescue. Harold shuffled sideways through the door, clutching the handles of two upscale department store shopping bags, each one of the bulged like a fat lady’s girdle. He carefully rested them on the floor and flexed the handle creases out of his fingers. My parents greeted him and took his heavy, grey coat along with Aunt Gloria’s leather one and hung them up. Aunt Gloria brought him over to meet us.

                “Andy, Michael, Linda…this is Harold.”

                “Man, this guy is big,” I thought, “He could be a football player.” My hand disappeared into his grip when he shook it.

                “Nice to meet you,” he said in a low pleasant voice.

                I looked up into his hazel eyes, framed by his ash blonde hair. He was smiling brightly at me. I liked him. We all did. He seemed like a pretty cool guy.

                Aunt Gloria saw Linda’s ring on Mom’s finger. “Oh, Sara, where DID you get that beautiful ring!” Mom proceeded to tell her the story about the presents and Dad proudly showed off his paper…er…money clip.

                “Well, I think such unselfish gift-giving deserves a reward,” she announced as she reached for her pocketbook. We were on her like ants on sugar. “Let’s see…Princess, this is for you. Michael this is yours. Andy…”

                “I wrapped ‘em,” I added, making sure she had good reason to part with the dollar in her hand.

                “Good enough,” she said as she gave me the money.

                “And Mommy broke a nail trying to open hers!” Linda tattled, “And she started to say a curse word. The one that begins with the ‘sh’ sound. SHHHH!”

                “OK, Princess, I’ve got the idea,” replied our blushing aunt.

                Linda continued enthusiastically, “Good thing she didn’t say the whole word, or she’d have to be on couch arrest. And Daddy said a real curse word this morning. I heard him! He said…”

                Dad interrupted, “OK, time for you kids to go in the other room and watch T.V. until dinner.”

                I could see Harold trying not to laugh.

                “But I was telling Aunt Gloria…”

                “Go. Now.”

                Dinner was in the dining room, which on the surface sounds like a no-brainer, but at our house, we usually eat in the kitchen. The dining room is the place where you use the most expensive furniture in the house as a makeshift desk and junk it up with papers and stuff you don’t feel like putting away yet.

We were all gathered around this now very formal table, trying to remember our manners and avoid knocking over any of Mom’s good crystal or she’d have a cow. Dad said grace. We all said “amen” and started passing the plates around.

Dad had just finished his fourth slice of Mom’s just-baked-fresh-this-morning bread when he let out a surprised, “Well, I’ll be.”

“What is it?” Mom asked concerned.

“Sarah, I found your wedding ring. It must have slipped off into the dough this morning.” Dad cleaned it off and got down on one knee. “Darling, would you marry me?”

“I’ll think about it, if you do the dishes after dinner,” she answered, “But, tonight, I think that I’ll wear my special Christmas present ring.”

“Maybe you’ll find Dad’s money clip in the CASH-A-ROLL,” Mike joked. Everybody laughed.

Dinner went along light-heartedly. Although, we did have one spill when Michael jostled the table. OK, so I shoved him. He deserved it. He embarrassed me by telling Harold that I wanted to spit off his bridge. Dad’s drink spilled all over his sport jacket. You could tell he was mad, but he didn’t let it out. Thank God for company. We were having such a great time that we didn’t even notice the hour.

“Oh my!” Mom exclaimed, “We better hurry or we’ll be late for church!” The grown-ups quickly cleared the table. Mom said that we would have dessert when we came back. Dad went upstairs to put on a clean sport jacket.

                Suddenly, he hollered down from upstairs, “Sara, you’re not going to believe this.”

                “Uh oh,” I thought, “He found the cookie crumbs on my bed.”

                He hurried down the steps with his newly cleaned and pressed jacket on. In his hand, was an envelope.

                “What is it?” Mom asked.

                Dad pulled his money clip out of the envelope with a half dozen crisp twenties still folded sharply in its pinch. There was a note that Dad read aloud:

                                Dear Mr. Cocco,

                                                Even though we pride ourselves as full-service cleaning professionals, offering a variety of unique specialties that make us a cut above the competition, we regret to inform you that we do not launder money. So, we must return this to you as is.

                                Happy Holidays,

                                Sam and Ruth

                                Main Street Cleaners

                “Would you look at that,” Harold said, dumbfounded.

                “You’ve got an angel on your shoulder, Drew,” Aunt Gloria added.

                Linda ran over to the door and violently shook the sleigh bells that were hanging there.

                “Linda! What are you doing?” Mom exclaimed.

                “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. I want Daddy’s angel to have the very biggest!”

                The grown-ups all laughed. Mike and I thought she was showing off. Nobody’s that sickeningly sweet for real.

                “I think that’s good enough, sweetheart,” Mom said, “Is everyone ready to go?”

                “I will be just as soon as I put my special Christmas money clip to good use,” Dad said as he transferred the twenties to Mike’s paper clip.

                We arrived home from church about two hours later. The entire way back, all the adults talked about was how beautiful the service was. Yeah, sure! I was packed in like a sardine next to some sweaty old guy in a suit that reeked of moth balls. It was a night to remember alright!

                After dessert, we exchanged gifts. For a twenty-six-year-old—OOPS! Forgot I wasn’t supposed to tell—Aunt Gloria can sure pick the best kid presents. Linda got a designer outfit and a matching one for her doll, Dominique. Mike and I got the two hottest, hard-to-get video games of the season. Harold came through with accessories for Linda and her doll and we got extra controllers.

                Aunt Gloria got some more jewelry. Dad said that she owned more gold than Fort Knox. “You can never have too much of a good thing, Drew,” she joked.

                Mom and Dad gave Harold some big goofy civil engineering book that weighed a ton. (Aunt Gloria told them what to get him.) Harold really seemed to like it.

                “How can you like a book, Harold?” Mike asked, “They’re so boring. It’s almost as bad as getting CLOTHES for Christmas.”

                Linda got mad at that remark and it started an argument over who got the best present that night. Mom overruled us and said that she and Dad got the best gifts from us.

                “Yeah?” Mike asked.

                “Sure, when you kids gave us your prized possessions, that was something very kind and unselfish. You showed us that you have the love of Christmas in your hearts.”

                “Really?” Linda said in amazement.

                “Yes, Princess.” Mom answered, “Just like the first Christmas, when God showed us that He loved us so much by giving us His precious Son, Jesus, to rescue us from our sins and teach us how to live together in peace.”

                “So that’s what happened in the movie with George Bailey?” I said to myself, “He spent his whole life being kind and unselfish to the people in his town. In the end, when he needed help, they showed that Christmas kind of love back to him. Wow! If everybody had that Christmas love in their hearts, then people would be so busy helping each other that you’d end up with…peace on Earth! Then, it really would be a wonderful life. D’ya think?”

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