We’re doing the traditional Italian seven fish dinner again this year for Christmas Eve.
For years we went to Al and Sandie’s house for their Christmas Eve. It was a house full of warmth and family and it became a part of how we defined Christmas every year. Al was our dentist – but he was more than that. He’d played the organ at Kim and my wedding. He invited my father hunting. At his funeral in a packed church it was clear that everyone in the room had had a personal relationship with him.
After he died we went to their house one more time on Christmas Eve. I can’t imagine how difficult this was for his family. He had been such a big part of that celebration. His sons served up course after course of fish dishes and you could feel their father’s presence as well as his absence.
Each year we would leave their house and drive through this community that seemed to compete for which house could have the most over-the-top Christmas lighting display. The girls would wake up long enough to peer out the window at professionally mounted displays as we drove slowly in a long procession of cars that snaked into and out of this housing development.
When Maggie was two she had a bad fall. We were at the table at Al and Sandie’s and Maggie toppled over a chair at the top of a brick staircase and fell all the way down the stairs bumping her head hard on the brick. She had a huge scary bruise that began to swell. Someone got me ice and I held her while applying the ice. Kim was six months pregnant with Elena. The three of us sat on the couch together. As scary as it was, it looked as if Maggie would be all right.
Kim drove home and I sat in the back seat with Maggie re-icing her head and keeping her company. That night and all of Christmas day she repeated her new favorite story. “I fell down stairs. Daddy iced me.”
Kim looked in on Maggie throughout the night to make sure she was o.k.. In the morning all that remained was a discoloring. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were. This was how children died. We could have lost our daughter. We spent many nights in bed shuddering at the loss that might have been.
It’s unbelievable how quickly a life can be lost. Unbelievable even after it happens. Every day with a healthy child is a gift. Even when she is driving us crazy and behaving her worst, Kim and I try to remember that we’re lucky to have this child and her attitude.
A couple of days ago we began to prepare for this year’s Christmas Eve dinner. We started the seven fish tradition in our own house last year and have invited more people to join us this year. We stopped at Gallucci’s for the salt cod and the frozen smelts. We picked up two kinds of anchovies: the kind in the tin for the pasta and the kind packed in salt for the salad.
Al is everywhere in the ingredients here in the store. He is behind the deli counter and in the aisles. His hand will be on my shoulder Sunday night while I’m cooking and his voice will be in my ear asking me if I’d like a little wine.