My earliest memories are bound up in the celebrations of my extended family. It was not uncommon to have three or four generations in the house during each holiday, birthday, or anniversary. Every single one of the women was a great cook, and smells would waft out of open windows in the summer or hit you as soon as you walked through the door in the winter. Of them all, Christmas was the best and my mother’s favorite.
This particular Christmas, I was five years old. I’d been having a series of sore throats throughout that year and spent a lot of time home from school. Mom and I made delicate string decorations with crochet thread, starch and lots of glitter. We made taffy and fudge and sprinkle cookies with melted white chocolate icing. Pipe cleaners got bent into figure skaters, and we created frilly little skirts for them out of crepe paper streamers. Yards and yards of construction paper chains hung from the wood moldings and swooped over the tree.
The days dragged until Christmas, and my anticipation spiraled. My little sister wasn’t sure what all the excitement was about, but she loved sticking her fingers into the dough Mom rolled out on the table as much as she enjoyed munching on the stray cookie that found its way into her hands. At not quite three, she was way too young to remember the treat I knew was coming on Christmas Eve - the milk, eggs and vanilla my dad would crank together in a frosty steel bucket to make the frozen delight we had only once a year. But I knew, and I marked off each day on the calendar with a green crayon.
That might seem like a lot to remember from such a young age, but I’ll never forget that Christmas, because it was the Christmas without ice cream…
Three days before, my sore throats had escalated to the point of another visit from the doctor. I remember his face, very serious and frowning when he talked to my mother, and words like ‘get her in the hospital today’ and ‘we don’t want anything bad to happen to her.’ My mother wore her worried expression, the one like when she and dad talked about money.
Looking back on it now, I think I was one pretty sick cookie, but at the time, I only remember the doctor grinning like a clown when he talked to me. About how I was such a big girl, and how my mom would be with me the whole time. I had no idea what he was talking about, except he kept telling me that I’d be able to have all the ice cream I wanted afterward.
We hightailed it to the hospital, a huge place with gray-painted walls and shining speckled floors. Mom took me out of my sweater, dress, tights and underwear, and a nursing Sister thrust me into a thin, pink and white striped gown with short sleeves and a back that didn’t close. I found out why it wouldn’t close within the next half hour.
Those Sisters put me in a crib (I was mortified – five years old and in a crib!!) and wheeled me away from my mother (doctor’s lie number one). They had me stood up on a low metal table within minutes and told me to bend over “this pretty padded stool.” Well, there was no way I was going to do that voluntarily. I’m Italian and about as stubborn as they come. I kept trying to haul that little gown over my cold, bare hind-end, so one of the Sisters grabbed my hands in an iron grip and pulled me over that padded stool while another snuck up behind me.
“This won’t hurt a bit,” I heard just before she stuck my poor butt cheek with a needle about three feet long (Sister’s lie number one). Of course, I howled like a banshee and kicked her. She deserved it, after all.
I got really dizzy after that, and things got fuzzy. I remember lights overhead, and I kept telling everyone they’d lost my mother and had better find her pretty quick. Then a wintry-feeling room with all sorts of shiny objects that I didn’t like the looks of. The doctor showed up. I told him he should go to mass and say a prayer because he’d lied to me, but he just laughed and told someone else, “give her the gas.”
The rubber mask smelled nasty. I yanked my head away from it two or three times until somebody held me still.
“Count to one hundred,” I heard, and since I liked to show off, I started in.
“One…two…three…four…” I was up to about twenty-seven when my doctor said, “Crank it up, Jerry. She’s a live one.” Obstinate to the end, I made it up to forty-two before all the lights went out.
I woke up with a headache I can now say was worse than any hangover I’ve ever had. And sick. Throwing up sick and then dry heaves sick when there was nothing left to get rid of. For the rest of that day and then most of the second, my stomach growled with hunger because the Sisters wouldn’t chance feeding me until I stopped heaving.
And no ice cream (doctor’s lie number two). My poor throat burned, itched and bled, but no ice cream. After the longest time, I got to suck on an ice cube. And then they let me try a sip of water and then of ginger ale. But all the bubbles were gone and it tasted like metal when I managed to swallow it. When the doctor came around and told me I could leave, I just glared at him.
Mom took me home on Christmas Eve afternoon with strict instructions to give me liquids only for the next three days. The family gathered and made clucking noises over me until I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I retreated to my room to sulk. I heard Dad cranking the ice-cream machine in the kitchen and croaked out my sorrow to my teddy bear as I lay on my bed in self-induced solitary confinement.
Christmas morning was a complete bust. I was still groggy feeling and light-headed from the lack of food. Everything I drank hurt my throat and tasted wrong, and the smells of ham and eggs and toast made my mouth water. The family gathered again, and again they clucked over me. My new doll and I made a dash to my bed. The nap I usually fought came easily and lasted until everyone had gone home Christmas night.
I woke in the middle of the night to absolute quiet. Something drew me to the window. I peered over the sill, just tall enough to gaze in awe at the fat, feathery snow falling. The ground lay covered in a white blanket that sparkled in the light from the street lamp out front. I heard the whisper of my mom’s slippers from behind me and then her voice, soft and gentle in the dark.
“What are you doing out of bed? Your feet are going to freeze standing there.”
“I can’t sleep anymore,” I told her. Surprisingly, my voice was near to normal. “Is Christmas over?”
“It is, but I have one more present for you,” she said and held up the covers on my bed. “Climb back in and I’ll get it for you.”
She puffed the pillows up behind me and tucked me in before she left. When she came back a minute later, she had a bowl and spoon in her hand.
“It’s not quite three days, so don’t tell the doctor. I saved this for you.”
Inside the dark red melamine bowl lay two scoops of precious vanilla ice cream. She sat there while I savored that ice cream tiny bite by tiny bite. I have never, in all this time since, tasted anything better.