By Donna Koros Stramella

Growing up, we visited two houses on Christmas Eve. But we were only allowed to talk about one.

After my dad arrived home from work, we drove through the oil-stained Baltimore Harbor tunnel that separated the suburbs from the city. My Grandpop George and his wife Dot lived in a small apartment across from the neighborhood bar—with Pabst Blue Ribbon and Natty Boh signs brighter than the crooked strings of Christmas lights.

We entered through the kitchen, vanilla mixing with warm air from the oven. The star-shaped sugar cookies were timed for our arrival.

Christmas held the living room hostage. My grandfather crafted small wooden houses, painted them pastel yellow and blue, and decorated with crushed sparkling glass from broken ornaments.  He displayed those houses in his train garden. On either side of the tracks, there were scenes—a farm with plastic horses and pigs, miniature iron ice skaters and skiers permanently posed, and a wedding, where a bride and groom stood stiffly beside the handcrafted white church, tiny feet planted in plastic snow as they faced the minister. As a child, I looked into the bride’s painted, unsmiling face and wondered if she was my grandfather’s current wife, Miss Dot, or his first wife, Grandma Lilly.

Back in the car, my mom nervously reminded us that visiting Grandpop and Miss Dot was a secret. Grandma Lilly did not want us to know she was married previously.

We drove south out of the city to the suburbs. My father eased the station wagon slowly down Margate Drive, my two younger sisters and I voting on which house had the best decorations. When we pulled into the driveway, mom reminded us one last time about the secret. 

Inside, we were greeted by hugs, the smell of roast beef and carrots, and Bing Crosby singing “Silent Night” on the turntable. Uncle Walter was waiting. He would be able to open our gift tonight, but the ones under the tree were off limits until morning.

He lifted the top of the box, his hands like a giant lifting each section of the toy locomotive—all shiny black cars except the red caboose.

He liked red best, or at least we thought so—he never spoke. He was diagnosed as “severely mentally delayed.” Delivered at home, he was stuck at the top of the birth canal. The doctor aggressively moved the baby with forceps, pressing deep ridges into the sides of Walter’s head that lasted for weeks after his birth. He was in his 30s, but other damage from the forceps never faded.

Smiling, Uncle Walter lined up the cars in front of the Christmas tree. He loved trains, and so did his sweet father, Charles, my mother’s loving stepfather.

That winter, after a seemingly endless series of gray cold days, the weather broke slightly.

“We’re headed for the trainyard,” Walter shouted to Lilly as he left.

She didn’t answer. If she’d looked out the window, she would have seen the two starting the short walk to the now-abandoned trainyard–Walter in his thick brown coat and red mittens and Charles carrying a shotgun.

She saw the shotgun later, when a neighbor who had been walking his dog found Charles sitting on the tracks crying, two unspent shells in his hand.

I later learned that Charles spent some time in the state sanitarium. We didn’t see him for Easter that year. Or the Fourth of July. But on Christmas Eve, he was queuing up Bing Crosby as we walked in the door.

About the Author:

Donna Stramella is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Baltimore, Maryland. She has been published in The Baltimore Sun, Columbia Magazine, and The Catholic Review. She recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa.