My sister Judy has a friend named Paula. They've been best buddies since kindergarten. Judy was in Paula's wedding, is godmother to her daughter, and spends every Christmas out in California with Paula and her family. Despite some family cynicism, I believe Judy would spend every Christmas there even if Paula didn't live in sunny southern California, thus allowing Judy a reprieve from the fun of a Northeast winter.
My Christmas present to Judy was a package of king crab that she and Paula could serve on Christmas Eve. Italian tradition demands that Christmas Eve be not only meatless, but also contain either five, seven or twelve fish dishes depending on the area of Italy from which your ancestors emigrated. I figured king crab counted as a fish.
Once the package was opened, however, it was determined that they simply didn't want to share the king crab. So it was promptly steamed and served with melted butter and cold vodka - hence the picture on my blog of my sister and Paula tenderly caressing a couple of king crab parts. I'm assuming the caressing had something to do with the vodka.
I mention this less for the story of the king crab than for the story of friendships that last a lifetime. I never realized how unusual these friendships were until I left the boundaries of Ducktown in Atlantic City and ventured into the wider world. There I found many people who had gone to more than one grade school in the course of their elementary education. They had more than one home address in their childhoods. They couldn't remember the name of their first grade teacher and had no one to call for the answer. This state of affairs blew my mind.
I grew up in a time and place that I realize now, in retrospect, was very special.
I'm a still close friend with the girl I first met when we were three. Like Judy and Paula, this friend is my sister in all but the blood connection. She's the one who pierced my ear with a sewing needle and potato when my mother wouldn't let me have pierced ears.
She's the one I was always jealous of because her birthday was three months before mine, meaning she got her driver's license before me and got to drink legally before me.
It's only now as we age that I appreciate having a birthday later than hers.
I can't imagine what it's like to not have a friend who can go back that far with you. Any name I can't remember from our past, she can. Any classmate I can't place, she can. She fills in my memory when it fails, and I fill in hers.
People talk about the importance of family during the holidays. The definition of family in my childhood stretched in ways many would find unimaginable in today's world where neighbors might know neighbors by sight but have not a clue beyond that.
In Ducktown, everyone knew everything about everybody. At the center of that network was St. Michael's. It's where you were baptized, schooled, confirmed, married and had your own children baptized. Until gambling came along and destroyed the neighborhoods that once dotted Atlantic City, Ducktown seemed impervious to change. To a child, it always had been and always would be.
I don't celebrate Christmas the way I used to back then. Back then we were so very excited to be allowed to stay up and go to midnight mass. Then we'd visit people who would have Christmas cookies and eggnog available for anyone who stopped in.
We'd go to sleep way later than we should have and woke up way earlier than usual to see what was under our tree. Then we'd grab the one present mom said we could bring in the car to Philly as we headed there for the family Christmas dinner. I don't think any decision in my life has ever been as hard as which toy to take on those trips to show off to my cousins.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Merry Kwanza. Cheerful Festivus. May you all know the joy of forever friends that it has been my privilege to experience. And whatever you celebrate, may your memories of those times be as warm and comforting to you as my memories are to me.
Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City, " is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.