Memories of Christmas in Pittsburgh

Christmas time has arrived once again. 2014 marks the 13th consecutive Christmas I’ll send in abroad and celebrate with my Argentine family (yes Perico, 2001 at your uncle’s house in Temperly most certainly counts as celebrating with family). And while I cherish spending the holidays with mi familia politica, during the holidays sentiments inevitably conjure memories of the home and hearth of Christmas past.

That’s because getting Steelers hats, posters or hand-me downs as a kid or getting “real time” information on the Steelers as a teenager were a nice part of our annual Christmas treks to Pittsburgh.

  • But that remains far from what was most important about those trips.

Those trips gave us some of our best extended quality time with the grandparents and, before a corporate merger wisked my uncle’s job out to California, with my aunt, uncle, and two cousins.

Trips to Pittsburgh meant eating out at the Pizza Hut near the intersection of Brownsville Road and Route 51 in Whitehall. It meant eating my grandfathers Brach’s Butterscotch, chewing his Beechnut gum, and eating Kondikes (long before they became a national brand). When my age was still measured in single digits, they meant visits to my grandfather’s butcher shop at 2506 Brownsville Road, where he’d offer us free Whistlepops or pull my leg about making me “write an ice check” for a Kit Kat when I didn’t have the .15 to pay for it.

  • The car trips were of course long sometimes boring – 1977 Delta 88 Oldsmobiles Royales didn’t come with DVD players.

But they did give us a chance to travel out of our assigned seats, and there was always the prospect that on one of the legs we’d stop at Midway rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, were I just might get a Howard Johnson’s peppermint ice cones (you could not find peppermint ice cream anywhere else those days).

More often than not, instead of Midway we’d stop at Breezewood’s Family Restaurant. And sadly we can say that over the years we saw the institution decline from being a pretty good “regular” restaurant to place that was no longer worth stopping it (their decision to replace butter with margarine without giving you a choice was the straw that led my mother to put her foot down – we never went back.)

  • These trips also offered a glimpse into something distinct than the suburban surroundings I was accustomed to.

The homes visible to inbound travelers just outside the Squirrel Hill Tunnels, the ones that seemed to have one lane tunnels leading to twin garages set deep into the hill sides fascinated me, reminding me of castles I suppose, and I’d often ask “Why didn’t grandma and grandpa move into a house with a garage like that?!”

I am just old enough to have seen, and smelled, the J&L steel works while it was still in operation, and indeed it was the first part of the city that you’d see coming in on the Parkway. I can still remember driving down Carson Street between the Brady Street Bridge and Beck’s Run Road, with 3 stories of steel mill to our left taverns on our right, and an awful smell of rotten eggs.

Despite the smells, it was an awesome sight to behold.

And although I was too young to understand the global economics, poor business and poor union policies (yes, there’s blame on both sides — if you doubt it just read The Ones that Hit the Hardest) that led to Big Steel’s decline, even at a very young age there was a certain poignancy when driving by my aunt Jeanne told me, “You know, when I was your age you couldn’t walk on the sidewalks because the workers cars were parked here. They ran 3 shifts around the clock.”

Pittsburgh might have lacked the “diversity” that suburban Maryland exposed me to, but it offered another type of “diversity” evident in the Onion Dome Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, evident in the “National Slovak Society” building, evident in the names ending in “owski” and the like or in Lawrenceville steel mills known as the “Heppenstall Works.”

Maryland acquainted me with the Hispanic and Asian influence that represents the US’s future. Pittsburgh acquainted me with what demographers refer/referred to as “white ethnic” and what in Western Pennsylvania is known as “Hunkies” who played such a vital role in constructing the region and country’s history.

Pittsburgh, Was and Is About Its People

While these sights gave me memories leaving a mark that I’ll happily carry for life, what made those Christmas trips to Pittsburgh precious was of course the people and the family.

  • If my family can be said to have a “home base” that would most certainly be St. Wendelin’s church in Baldwin.

It was there that my parents received the sacraments as children and were married was adults. It was also there that all four of my grandparents were laid to rest, and where I made the very deliberate choice of making that the spot where I chose to call home to let the folks know that my wife had accepted my marriage proposal.

St. Wendlin’s also offered lighter fare, such as the chance to hear someone sign the familiar refrain “Sing hosanna, sing hosanna…” with one of the heaviest Pittsburgh accents I’ve ever heard or, thanks to the fortune provided by the liturgical cycle, the chance to pleasantly needle my father when whichever Gospel reading implored “Fathers, do not nag your children.”

  • The fondest memories by far of the Christmas trips to Pittsburgh involve family.

Both sets of grandparents lived about 2 minutes away from each other, and my aunt and uncle about 45 minutes away in Monroeville. The grandparents were always glad to see us. Even Blackie, my grandfather’s often ill-tempered and very spoiled Cockerpu was elated when we walked in the door – Grandma always assured us, “He knows you were coming, he’s been waiting for you.” It’s probably true.

One year when we drove up on Christmas day, I was still just young enough to be both pleased and surprised to find that “Santa left something for you” at my Aunt’s house in Monroeville – a Fisher Price ambulance set.

Those trips also taught me that aging, and family crises, don’t discriminate during the holidays. In 1982 my father faced relocation of his job, in 30 days time, to Cincinnati while his father was in the hospital both dying of cancer and nursing a broken hip, while my other grandfather was hospitalized with ulcers. We literally spent the entire trip shuttling between hospitals.

If memory serves, it’s also the same year my Uncle was shuttling back and forth to New York to take care of his ailing mother.

  • My folks were two years younger than I am now, and to this day I have no idea how they made it through that.

When we were younger, we’d usually stay with my father’s parents. I distinctly remember when I was six my grandfather pulling me into the spare bed room, opening a tin of chocolate chip cookies my grandmother made, and saying “Here, have some.” Incredulous that a responsible adult would invite me to help myself to cookies so close to dinner, I asked “Who made these?” He replied, “Grandma made the. Here, have some. Go ahead, have some I won’t fib on you….”

  • Needless to say, I dug in…

Later on, when I got older, we’d stay with my aunt and uncle, who had a bigger house, a Lego set, a dog named George, and best of all a fire place. Every year, I’d ask my dad, “Are they going to lite a fire?” My dad would admonish me not to ask, and most of the time I didn’t, but uncle Hank usually complied, which allowed me to indulge my latent pyromaniac tendencies, as I’d scour the waste baskets for Dixie cups, used up toilet paper rolls, and just about anything (and everything) else that would burn.

I can still remember my dad, sitting up late into the night reading his book, and waiting for George to just start to fall asleep by the fire, when he’d shake the peanut jar, which would rouse George from his resting place.

  • In the mid-80’s my uncle’s job relocated to the Bay Area, and sadly we could no longer spend the week between Christmas and New Years with them.

While that was unfortunate, it did give us a chance to reach out visit with other members of our extended family there, giving me the chance to at least see if not “know” neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and Bloomfield and even Mt. Oliver, where my grandfather would drive me around Mt. Oliver, explaining “This used to be a coal mine” or “The street car tracks ended here….”

Those trips in later years also introduced me to the Christmas cookie plate. Yes, people did (and still do, I assume) make Christmas cookies in Maryland, but the mix always seemed to be different in Western Pennsylvania, which was pleasant at first, and then frustrating when I was a high school wrestler needing to watch his weight….

With Age, Comes Understanding

One thing that never changed, on any Christmas trip to Pittsburgh, was the way they ended.

And that was with my grandmother crying. We’d pack up the car, start to say our goodbyes, and she’d be in tears. When she was younger, she’d look out from the back window as we pulled out of the garage, and then move to the front of the house and waive out the door. Later, she’d just stand at the front door, but always with tears in her eyes.

  • When I was a kid, I never quite understood why she would cry, because we of course see each other again.

As an adult I find myself doing similar goodbyes at Ezezia International airport and/or the DC airports and – yeah that’s when I came to understand Grandma’s tears.

  • Christmas time trips to Pittsburgh were always special, special because of the time spent with family there.

And I guess the larger lesson behind that, is that “Chistmas in Pittsburgh” isn’t so much about either a place on the map or somewhere why my family has roots to the past – its about whatever place you go to to find the nurturing warmth of kinship and love during the holiday season.

So, whether you’re in Pittsburgh, a product of the diaspora, a member of Steelers Nation, or someone who simply found this through the glory of Google, Steel Curtain Rising wishes you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2015.

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4 thoughts on “Memories of Christmas in Pittsburgh

  1. We all seem to have some fond memory of Pittsburgh. One of mine was the “overflow” pipe from the Iron City Brewery. My best friend in the Air Force while stationed in England took me there when we came home on leave and I met my future bride. I suppose that was one of his teenage pastimes. The beer was good and cold. I grew fond of Pittsburgh even went to a Pirates game one summer between Air Force assignments. My first big league game and I had a seat near first base. I never understood how the houses could be built on hills coming from the flatlands of Virginia. The best part was meeting all the Vollmer Clan. The Vollmers were a great bunch to know and maybe I will see them again if I make it to heaven. Merry Christmas, Keith and Ale. I will see you folks in February! God love you!

  2. We all seem to have some fond memory of Pittsburgh. One of mine was the “overflow” pipe from the Iron City Brewery. My best friend in the Air Force while stationed in England took me there when we came home on leave and I had met my future bride. I suppose that was one of his teenage pastimes. The beer was good and cold. I grew fond of Pittsburgh and even went to a Pirates game one summer between Air Force assignments. My first big league game and I had a seat near first base. I never understood how the houses could be built on hills coming from the flatlands of Virginia. The best part was meeting all the Vollmer Clan. The Vollmers were a great bunch to know and maybe I will see them again if I make it to heaven. Merry Christmas, Keith and Ale. I will see your folks in February! God love you!

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