I have to say I miss them. Every one of them. Christmas now is full of the memory of food, laughing, talking late into the night, and shivering in the cold on the way to midnight Mass.
It was a holiday we longed for. One that took old family and Polish traditions and blended them simply and beautifully, knitting all the generations together seamlessly.
Our family was so big when I was little that on Christmas Eve a huge table was set for the aunts, uncles and older cousins and one card table for the children. I was always the youngest, born when my mother was 40.
They are all gone now save for my parents, and my father, the youngest in his family, is 77. Old age, sudden sicknesses and tragic early deaths took the rest of them. There is no one to fill a big kitchen table anymore as we used to, first at my Aunt Nettie's and then at my parents' house in Buffalo.
These were simple, but wonderful, food-filled affairs that were prepared for days in advance.
The meal celebrated by Polish families everywhere on Christmas Eve is called Wigilia. It is meatless, but rich. There is fresh herring, soaked for days and then creamed; soup made with dried mushrooms; steaming bowls of potatoes; fresh baked rye and wheat breads; noodles called kluski mixed with honey, cream and poppy seed; and cake plates piled high with cookies, coffeecakes and sweets.
The meal begins with the breaking of a wafer, called oplatek. Each takes a piece and shares it; everyone embraces and wishes each other good health and a happy year.
The ritual involved trips to the Polish market and hours of getting ready. Early on Christmas Eve, relatives would pour into the house, smelling woolly from the moist snow outside. I'd take the coats and suffer many kisses. Boots would be piled on top of boots.
These were hot, steamy affairs once we were all packed into the kitchen. Few of our homes had formal dining rooms and we never seemed to miss them. It was just cozier.
The windows would cloud with the heat from cooking and the crowding of 14 or 16 aunts and uncles and their children into a small flat. I never noticed that we didn't invite friends. Our family was friends.
My father's brothers and sisters would lapse into Polish, telling stories and jokes that were sidesplitting and brought them to tears. The children wondered about their secrets but never really learned enough of the language to understand. We shrugged our shoulders and kept on eating.
Many in my father's family lived long lives, well into their nineties. They left memories so strong that I can still see Aunt Sophie bent over at the waist in her bedroom brushing the long chestnut hair that she did up in a bun. Or Aunt Nettie, who lived downstairs from us many years, letting me stand on tiptoes to spy into her jewelry drawers. And standing for hours next to my cousin Betty, who was 25 years older than me, drying the the good china by hand. She chatted with me like I was an adult. She was a generous person who gave her whole life to helping kids. I named my little girl after her when she died almost three years ago.
Last year at this time, Uncle Ed, maybe the most extraordinary of them all, joined us at my parents' for Wigilia and the opening of presents. He was quiet, and sicker than we knew.
He never married. He died quickly and alone, near 90.
The hole he left was a large one for us. He was a plant and specialty rose lover, a classical pianist who could compose on the keys, and a store of knowledge about literature, poetry and politics. I never knew before he died that once he did love someone, a painter, who left him with one of her canvases.
I took some of his plants to raise. He cared for them in a room of their own, like children.
The violets, two of them, shriveled and died. I couldn't find the right light for them and I guess I wasn't feeding them right. I can't say how many times I slipped, thinking, "I'll call Uncle Ed and ask him what to do about this.' "
But his Christmas cactus has grown and blossomed, bursting with magenta blooms in my living room.
By the middle of January, he was gone, and I knew what the words "immediate family" meant. Of the eight children in my father's family, there was only my dad, and an aunt in a nursing home whom I would never see again.
Over the space of three years, we had many final partings. People who I thought would live forever because I always knew them as adults, solid and sturdy. Many of them outlived their own children, who were my cousins. They also were much older than I.
Finally they had become old, and I had become older. Once it started, it seemed the whole fabric of the family started unraveling and couldn't be stopped.
The gathering in Buffalo at my parents' house this year will be small. The kitchen will be quieter, not so steamy from good-natured arguing and laughter. Aunt Sophie, the eldest, will not sit at the head across from my father, delicately folding and refolding her napkin. My mother won't have to rush in with a bowl of tuna fish for Uncle Ed, whose stomach couldn't take herring or most other kinds of fish.
But there will be the voices of grandchildren, a new generation that brings some boisterousness to the table. My parents will cook the traditional foods, and we will go out into the cold for Mass.
And they will all be with us, as real as the Christmas ornaments that year after year are hung on the tree.