It was late Saturday afternoon, Christmas Eve, 1949.  The melodious strains of the Italian Hour poured out of the old ivory-coloured AM radio that sat on top of the antique Kelvinator refrigerator.  The radio show’s words and music, featuring Perry Como singing “O Holy Night” in Italian, flowed loudly throughout the house.

My mother, Mary, hummed along as she prepared her signature dish of Sicilian-style Country meatballs.  Because she was hearing impaired, the radio was always loud enough to be heard anywhere in the house.

For Christmas, holidays, or very special occasions, her mouth-watering baseball-size meatballs were stuffed with a circular-centre of mozzarella and provolone cheeses and Italian herbs.  When you bit into the gooey centre, the cheese and spice mixture oozed out around your tongue engaging your mouth with its warm creamy essences.  The smells from the kitchen permeated the atmosphere of the entire house from the basement to the attic giving it a warm holiday feeling.

Butchy, my first dog, sat patiently at my mother’s feet hoping for a culinary faux pas.  The black, tan and white Terrier-mix waited diligently eyeing my mother’s hands for any bits of meat or cheese that might accidently fall to the floor for her to whisk away with her tongue.

I was seven-months old as was Butchy – both of us having been born in May of that year.  Butchy, a spayed female dog, had been given as a baby gift to my parents from a friend of the family.  It was someone who knew that every boy needed a dog, a companion, to be at his side while growing up.

“Okay, brutta fiutosa,” my mother said to the watchful dog.  This was my mother’s Sicilian slang for ‘big stinker’ – even though Butchy was actually small.  “Maybe just one little cheese ball.  We don’t want you getting too fat.  You have to be able to keep with up James Jr., when he’s crawling around on the floor.”

Butchy put her front feet up on the kitchen chair and gently snatched the white cheese ball from my mother’s hand.  She darted to the corner of the dining room to savour her prize in relative seclusion.  She looked up as my father passed by her carrying the six-foot stepladder he had used to put the star up on the top of the Christmas tree.

“Well, that’s done,” my father, James Sr., said to my mother.  In a corner in the living room, the six-foot Douglas Fir reigned supreme with an overabundance of Christmas lights, aluminium tinsel, a multitude of glass balls and glass ornaments (some many years old), candy canes, and a bit white glowing star on the top.  The tree was always placed in the corner and never in front of a window.  It was a long-honoured family tradition.

After they were baked to perfection, my mother placed the glass dish of meatballs on the sideboard in the dining room to cool.  Here they would rest and remain out of reach to any and all kitchen traffic until time for the Christmas Eve supper.

When she returned to the dining room 30-minutes later, three of the meatballs were missing from the dish.  “I think your dog got into my dish of meatballs.  Three of them seem to be missing.”  Butchy was always my father’s dog whenever she did anything wrong, just as I was my father’s son when I was in the cradle crying.

She was now staring at my father inquisitively. “You didn’t taste one, did you?  You know, just to see if they tasted good enough for company.”  This was conveyed half in Italian and half in English.  And this was their usual method of conversation with one another, regardless of where they were, at home or not.  “Okay, so I’ll look around.  I’ll see what I can find,” he said, trying to lighten her mood.

My father went down to the cellar to get the wine for supper.  Near the cat’s food dish was a large dark round object.  When he got closer, he could see that it was one of the meatballs and that the cat had been taking small bites out of it.  But the cat did not go into the main part of the house so he knew that the cat was not the culprit.  “Well, Blackie (one of our first all-black cats), looks like Santa Claus has come early and brought you a tasty treat.”

From the basement, my father could hear me crying in my cradle.  Changing diapers was not my father’s favourite chore but he knew my mother was buys in the kitchen so up he went to my bedroom for his parental duty.

In my crib, near my little baby feet, was a large dark round object.  It was another meatball.  Evidently, the someone who had taken the meatballs was delivering them as Christmas gifts to all parts of the house.

But where was the third one?  After my diapering was completed, my father went downstairs to turn on the outside Christmas lights.  The trimwork of the house was illuminated by multi-coloured bulbs strung up above the windows encircling the front porch.

My father came in shaking briskly from the cold night air.  He went into the living room to turn on the Christmas tree lights.  The over-loaded plug sparked in the socket as it made the connection and the tree glowed brightly lighting up the entire room.

“Well, I’ll be,” my father exclaimed as he looked down at the manger beneath the tree.  There, next to the Baby Jesus, was a large dark round object – the third meatball.

For many years, this was one of my father’s favourite Christmas stories.  How Butchy had gotten up in a chair next to the sideboard and one-by-one had delivered her meatball Christmas gifts to all of her favourite people – without taking one for herself.

Butchy’s first Christmas began an enduring and an enriching friendship that would last for the next 16 years.  And it began by teaching me the true meaning of Christmas while I was still in my cradle.  She also made it a Christmas to remember for my whole family for years to come.

 

James has twice received the Maxwell Medallion given by the Dog Writers Association of America.  A past president of the Animal Rescue & Foster Program of Greensboro, NC, James shares his home with a housemate and six dogs.  He is a lead clerk with Barnes & Noble Booksellers.  His stories have appeared in Cesar’s Way Magazine and many other including the archives at Petwarmers.com and Heartwarmers.com

 

   

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