Saturday, December 23, 2017

Photo stash memories of past holidays

I feel like I got my holiday gift a few months early. Like back in July.

It was this summer that one of my cousins, Lora Ann who now has a life in Arizona, gave to all of us in the family the digital copies she made of her mother’s photo albums – thereby sharing with us decades of family images.
My grandmother hard at work at Christmas-time

INCLUDING ONE THAT is particularly relevant this time of year. It is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Socorro Vargas, working in her kitchen. Her fingers are a complete mess, and the table she’s working at is covered in corn husks.

Because mi abuela appears to have been hard at work making a batch of tamales – as in that delicacy that will be the basis of many a Christmas holiday meal for families with a touch of Mexican-American in them.

This photo is particularly intriguing to me because my earliest memories of Christmas celebration include going to Grandma’s house in the South Shore neighborhood on Christmas Eve (they'd moved from South Chicago by that point in life), and having a dinner that centered around dozens of tamales.
My grandfather, the real chef?

Literally many dozens, because there were eight kids (including my mother) in the family, along with all the spouses and next generation of kids (my cousins) who were present. I’m sure it was many hours of hard work to prepare the meal – because tamales aren’t an easy dish to make.

JUST ONE LITTLE thing goes off in preparing the masa that is the base of the tamale, and you wind up with an inedible mess.

Looking at that photograph makes me wonder how exhausted my grandmother must have been after she was finished with that particular batch of tamales. And also that I probably didn’t truly appreciate the level of work that went into preparing that meal that now is amongst my most pleasant of childhood holiday memories.

There is one potential flaw in this story. I know my mother always insisted that when it came to Christmas tamales, it was my grandfather, Michael Vargas, who did the work.
The family to be fed (my mother at far left)

Some guys insist on perceiving themselves as master chefs during the summer when it comes to dredging up the barbecue grill and flipping a few burgers. My grandfather supposedly took charge of that holiday meal.

ALTHOUGH I DON’T doubt my grandmother put in some work too. It was her kitchen, and I don’t think she’d have easily surrendered control of it.

Anyway, a Christmas tamale meal isn’t something I have had in years. At least not of the image of a family matriarch slaving away in the kitchen for a full day just to feed us all.

One of the quirks of the complex process of making tamales is that it is something that was NOT passed along to other family members. My mother always insisted it was too much hard work, and we could always just go to a Mexican-oriented grocery around the holidays and buy a couple dozen tamales already made.
Uncle Spinx, letting loose at a past New Year celebration

Which is something my brother and I used to do so we could have a tamale taste – usually as a meal for one day, with the other day of the Christmas holiday centering around a ham or some other “American”-oriented dish.

AS FOR THIS year, I don’t know what I’m doing for a holiday meal. Particularly since there’s now a Jewish element to the family celebrations, and there are some of us who are “holiday’ed” out from Hanukkah and all the latkes – of which there are still a few dozen sitting in the refrigerator.

But going through my Aunt Connie’s photo albums at my own leisurely pace is proving to be a nice treat. Particularly when I got to the photographs of my Uncle Spinx (Lora Ann’s father) partying it up at many New Year’s celebrations past.
Returning the holiday greetings

Although the ultimate chuckle is the shot of my uncle as part of an all-“girl” dance troupe. While the ultimate sweet moments are the photos I now have of my mother, Jenny, as a young girl.

And to mi prima Lora Ann for providing me with all these images. I hope my cousin will have a Merry Christmas as well.


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