Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas at Tante Bitta's

Heavy snow is coming down today.  It is reminding me of a Christmas in Brooklyn.

One of my favorite people when I was a child was my “Tante Bitta.”  She was actually not my Aunt or Tante, she was my cousin.  However, like all of my first cousins on my father’s side, she was an adult when I was born and had children my age.  Out of respect, I called her Tante.  When I was little I couldn’t say her name Birgit; in my childish pronunciation she became Bitta.  We saw her and her family only occasionally until they moved within walking distance.  What a happy day that was!  Her eldest daughter and I became best friends.

So many things I could write about her daughter and I.  After putting 75 cents in the cigarette machine, we’d puff away for a few hours.   Believing we’d rather “fight that switch” after a brief usage of Marlboros we became Tareyton smokers.  Doused in perfume, with gum in our mouths we'd try to cover the smell.  My mother would be angry and yell, always snooping in my things to find evidence.  Birgit would just get a twinkle in her eye and shake her head.  Fortunately, my smoking “habit” was intense but very brief.

Like me, Birgit had a large family.  Like me, she had plenty of pain in this life.  If I think of a strong woman, I think of her.  She was witty, smart and beautiful.  She was hardworking and a survivor.  As a child, I loved her more than any other Tante or cousin.

The apartment she lived in on the second floor on 60th street was way too small for her family.  One of my earliest memories of visiting that apartment includes seeing her seventh and last child Paul, in a bassinet.  I loved seeing new babies.  Paul was no exception. 

My dad loved his niece.  I don’t know if he sponsored her when she came to the US.  I do know he looked after her in ways long forgotten.  At times he would take some of her brood with us on the explorations of NYC, the museums, the Statue or Central Park.  Our home was quiet as I was the only child there.  Birgit’s home was full of life, energy, and chaos.

It was Christmas Eve.  It was snowing very hard.  As we walked to Birgit’s with gifts in hand the snow stung our faces.  It was 7 blocks to their house.  At each curb we crossed, the piles of snow were deep.  My mother fell into one of them and was covered with snow.  We trudged on.  Finally, a snowy Virgin Mary was seen.  She graced the front of their house as the owners and first floor dwellers were Catholic. 

Birgit’s house smelled of turkey.  She had a large turkey in the oven of that tiny kitchen.  The table sat between the kitchen and the small living room that I think doubled as a sleeping area for some of the kids at night.  There was no fancy table setting, just the warmth of Christmas.  Wet cold clothes removed, we sat down where ever we could find a place for the delicacies she had lovingly prepared.

I don’t remember all the details, but somewhere Birgit had found a Santa Claus costume.  My dad would play Santa Claus for the Birgit’s children.  My dad had no natural beard and didn’t have a particularly large stomach.  The costume wasn’t very good.  But the kids were still small enough to believe and that was all that mattered.  I imagine like me, most of the people in their life had a Norwegian accent.  A Norwegian accented Santa was not difficult to believe in.

I knew it was my Dad.  I wish I had a picture.  I wish I could even in my mind see the look on Birgit’s face as her Onkel Olav who loved her so much came in with a Santa costume to delight her children.  I imagine my dad was there when Birgit entered heaven to welcome her just like he did when she came to America.  All the children of Johannes and Siri Jonassen were already there waiting for her.

Many years later, long after my father was gone I visited Birgit.  She lived in a much better house and life was better for her.  Over a ham sandwich at her kitchen table, she told me in Norwegian how Onkel Olav always left money for her to buy milk for the children.  I was now the young and struggling mother with many children.  She gave me some cash for my children’s milk. 

It was a long trudge back through the snow to our own apartment that Christmas long ago.  Like the song, the street lights twinkled bright red and green through snow covered lights.  Our neighbor was blaring Christmas music through a speaker attached to his house.  It was a snowy Christmas in Brooklyn. 

1 comment:

  1. Joyce, I love reading of your Christmas memories. I have many Tantes too and they all weren't really related. What a kind man your dad was! It's interesting in retrospect, isn't it?

    I linked to your last post on Norwegian food from Heart Choices. You got me thinking and then of course ...writing.

    Merry Christmas!

    Blessings and love,


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