As we have mentioned numerous times in this blog, our family hosted Christmas Eve dinner; others took Christmas Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day and Easter. Christmas Eve, however, was ours.
As we have also mentioned numerous times, we lived in a relatively small apartment when we moved away from Twelfth Street to the projects in Chelsea. So to host one of these holiday dinners for the extended family required a lot more chairs than we had, or for that matter could store in the space we had.
Enter the magical Folding Chair; savior to many a family. We at the time had grey metal ones with one piece of miserable padding in the center of the seat. They gave no semblance of comfort, they were utilitarian and nothing more. I still have two in the basement, though Leslie is always trying to throw them away as the junk they probably are to most people who would see them. But I can’t do it; as uncomfortable as they were, they are forever a memory of those wonderful Christmas Eves. That memory is a potent one (come to think of it I should check to make sure they are still down there!)
Anyway back to the story. We had had these poor excuses for chairs for as far back as I can remember and would haul them out of the closet every year. Finally one year Dad sprang for some new wooden nicely padded chairs that slid open easily and actually felt like you were supposed to sit on them. Christmas Eve got classier, and they were a big hit the first time we used them. Dad was very proud of his purchase.
Now each family as you can imagine would drag along their folding chair contribution to whichever other family was hosting a holiday meal. We brought chairs to Aunt Fil and Uncle Jim, Mary and Dick brought chairs to us; you get the idea.
One year it was Aunt Mildred who was hosting the extended family at her apartment on Charles Street and she asked that we bring some folding chairs. She asked the same of Mary and Dick. Well, of course, Dad’s first inclination was to bring the miserable old metal chairs rather than his nice new wooden ones. That was just Dad. Mom, of course, wouldn’t hear of it; we would take the new ones. Dad somehow agreed.
And the wheels were set in motion.
We all gather at Aunt Mildred’s apartment and though she wasn’t much of a cook, all of us enjoyed the event and our time together. Now here is a key element in what was to follow: the folding chairs that Mary and Dick brought looked a lot like the ones Dad had bought, though of course, he thought his were far superior. Whatever. So the dinner is done, coats are gathered, goodbyes are said, and we all grab folding chairs to bring down to the street to be put into our respective cars. Under the dim light of a street lamp, Dick and Dad divided up the chairs, placed them in the trunks of the cars and we all drove home.
It wasn’t until the next morning, a Sunday, that the drama began.
Don and I were sleeping in as all sane people should do on a Sunday, but I was awakened by the sound of Dad’s raised voice:
“I’m telling you, these are not our chairs!”
Silence at first, and then the ever suffering voice of Mom calmly responding:
“Tony what do you mean they aren’t our chairs- they are right there.”
“I know these are chairs, thank you very much, what I am saying is these are not the same chairs we took to Mildred’s…..we took the good ones!”
“The good ones?!” Mom asked with that tone that said she knew where this conversation was going.
“Yes, the good ones- the ones I bought”.
A sigh from Mom.
“Ton – they look the same to me”.
“Well they’re not – we got the wrong ones by mistake – Dick has the good ones!”
More sane silence.
“Tony, they’re folding chairs for God’s Sake – who cares which ones we have as long as they work!”
Now strange silence from Dad. Then finally:
“That’s it – I am going to call him!”
“You will do no such thing!”
“But he has the good ones!”
“Tony – do you realize we are talking about folding chairs – who cares?”
“I care” Dad’s voice really raised now, enough to wake Don.
“Well get over it!” Mom trumped his volume; a rarity.
Then there was total silence. I was thinking about spending the rest of the day in bed; this wasn’t going to be a good day in the Ortolano household! Don looked over at me with a questioning look; I just shrugged.
“Babe” Dad tried again, but was immediately cut off.
Silence, then the muted sound of Dad shuffling off to the bathroom, the door slamming shut.
That you would think, was the end of the story right? Except it wasn’t; obsessions do not have expiration dates, fixations know no time limits.
So as you can guess, the next time we went to Mary and Dick’s for a holiday or visit, Dick brought out the folding chairs. Dad’s folding chairs, the good ones, or so he thought. Dad sat at the table, eyeing them, slightly shaking his head and muttering. Then the eyes started, looking from the chairs to Mom, trying to get her attention. He looked at Mom, he looked at the chairs. Cue the eyebrows; up and down, up and down, the clearing of the throat, the fake cough, he employed them all in the attempt to get Mom to look at the chairs.
She, of course, knew what he was doing and she chose to ignore him; leaning in to listen more intently to whoever was talking. This, of course, infuriated Dad even more which resulted in more strange sounds coming from his clenched mouth.
That scene would play itself endlessly at family gatherings for years to come.
It was the stuff of legend, and after a while, Don and I would look forward to the next time folding chairs were required; the performances never disappointed.
And for weeks after those events when Don and I lay in our respective beds in the darkness, listening to Mom and Dad talk softly in the next room as they always did, every so often out of nowhere we would hear Mom raise her voice:
“Would you forget about the stupid chairs!!”
As I finally fell asleep I was sure of one thing in the world:
He never would.
And he never did.