Local view: Christmas joy found in safety in numbersI used to think Uncle John and Aunt Lucy had the biggest family in the world. They lived in a two-story house with their 10 kids: Jack, Alan, Kenny, Joyce, Mary Lou, Bob, Don, Joe, Bill and Bonnie.
By: David McGrath, Duluth News Tribune
I used to think Uncle John and Aunt Lucy had the biggest family in the world. They lived in a two-story house with their 10 kids: Jack, Alan, Kenny, Joyce, Mary Lou, Bob, Don, Joe, Bill and Bonnie.
While I’m incapable of memorizing my own cellphone number, I recall all the Vojtechs’ faces and names because for so many years they epitomized the Christmas holidays. Though we had no shortage of aunts and cousins and grandparents visiting at Christmas, it was only when my old man announced, “Who wants to go to the
Vojtechs?” that we erupted in cheers and commenced a rugby scrum to the station wagon.
It wasn’t just that there were seven boys, outnumbering our six, which altogether enabled full-strength football, hockey or basketball games, depending on the season. Or that they had a mutt named Bullet, after TV cowboy Roy Rogers’ dog. Or that my two sisters morphed into intriguing, dangerous women after hanging out with redhead sophisticate Joyce and the streetwise Mary Lou.
There were two other draws to the Vojtech place, the first being fear. The hushed tones among the adults in those days, discussing bomb shelters, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” and the Russians, who had recently shot down one of our spy planes, left a 10-year-old confused and sometimes scared. Feeling connected to all those cousins lent me courage.
The second reason was freedom. You probably have to be in a big family yourself to understand. With our eight children, there were not a lot of invitations to dinner. Or invitations to weddings. Or invitations period. And when you did go out as a family, it was under suffocatingly strict conditions: rules about running and shouting or feet on furniture. But the Vojtech home felt exactly like the McGrath home, only better: the same lack of regulation but with the novelty not yet worn off.
Unlike so many other adults, for example, Uncle John did not make a big show of counting us when we filed in. He was short, bald like a monk and with wire-rimmed eyeglasses. What sticks with me most, though, is his ever-present smile, as though he knew that whatever it was you were going to say was probably juicy. And the smile stayed put, even if I broke a lamp or Kevin chewed with his mouth open.
With Aunt Lu, there was never any of that painful adult-trying-to-be-cool small talk. She’d firmly grasp my shoulders and look in my eyes in a way that had me believing I was preferred over her own offspring. If there is such a thing as a Child Whisperer, John and Lucy Vojtech were the prototypes.
And they had enough kids so that each of us had his or her own pal according to age: Kenneth and Bill, Nancy and Bonnie, Jim and Bob, Joe and me.
Our most memorable visit was the day after Christmas in 1960. The freezing rain kept us from playing outside. But leave it to Alan and Kenny and Don to set up a fabulous field-hockey rink in the basement. The last thing I remember was chasing a loose puck into the far right corner when everything suddenly went black. I had run smack into a low-hanging cast iron sewerage pipe, splitting my head open. Someone must have carried me upstairs, since the next thing I heard was my mother’s voice worrying that it might be deep enough to require stitches.
“Oh, maybe not, Gertie,” said Aunt Lu. “A butterfly might do the trick.”
My eyes began finally to focus, to see the faces of all the adults, along with Alan and Rosie and little Bonnie and everyone else who could squeeze into the kitchen, hovering over me. I remember my father held my head over the sink, running the faucet and rinsing the blood, waiting for Aunt Lu to either catch a butterfly or get one from her exotic collection.
I can still picture the bright white light in the kitchen and feel the eerie sense of calm, the profusely leaking hole in my head, notwithstanding. I surprised myself by not crying, as though there wasn’t room for hurt or fear with all those people around.
Cradled over the sink, I half-dreamed I was suspended over a waterfall, held aloft by my father and all those freckled
Vojtech arms, making me safe, brave and loved.
It’s what I assumed Christmas felt like everywhere and for everyone, and what it always should be.
David McGrath of Hayward is an emeritus English professor for the College of DuPage in Illinois and is the author of “The Territory.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.