Most of my local Aunts and Uncles would gather at Grandpa's kitchen table after work on a Friday evening, dinner done in their own homes, they would drag their kids to the all adult event. This was before people middle income families used "sitters."
As I remember it, my grandfather had one radio in the living room. My siblings and cousins would lie on their bellies, feet bent up behind them in the air, and listen to ball games or radio shows popular during the 40's era.
As for me - a curly red-headed five-year-old child, I went for the real entertainment. The Adults. I would quietly slide underneath the card table and search for my Aunt Cecelia's round knees. My little hands would reach up for her strong bear-like paws and she would pull me to her lap, noisily scooting her big frame around in the wooden kitchen chair until we were both comfortable.
I never spoke at the card table. Instead I waited for the rituals, watched and listened to my relatives. Soon red and white packs of tall Pall Mall and Lucky Strike cigarette packs were pulled from pockets and purses and placed next to crystal ashtrays, always to the right of each relative's hand.
Within minutes, a tall half-filled glass of whiskey and can of cold beer were placed by each relative at the table. The sipping glass held enough whiskey for a full evening. Heads tilted. Lips parted, there was either dainty sipping or loud gulping of the clear brown liquid. Belches and sighs followed. Sometimes appreciation was shown by table slapping or loud "Ahhhhs."
My father always lit the first cigarette, and then turned in his chair and held his still flaming match to light my mother's Lucky Strike. Within seconds the cramped kitchen filled with the delicious odor of smoking tobacco. When he was relaxed enough, my father expertly blew smoke rings from his lips towards the ceiling. I loved that part. I thought it was the nicest thing about him. That first exhale and the acrid smoke of a dying wood match have stayed with me all these years.
Most of my relatives, men and women alike, smoked and drank. Except for Aunt Cecelia. Who did not - as my Aunt Gertie would say - "have a man." Even without the obligatory husband, Cecelia was a major attraction and gale wind force to be dealt with. Puffy bright red lips - shocking against her smooth alabaster skin - brightly painted red nails. A particular delight, she would scratch her neck or my back absentmindedly, leaving bright pink streaks on her tender skin or mine.
Aunt Cecelia's body was too round for anything but round dresses, but even with the big round dresses her ample flesh pressed bursting against side seams. I can remember touching the bulging flesh being held at bay with mere thread and cotton and wondering - fearful - could she, would she ever explode?
My father did not want me in Aunt Cecelia's lap or the card room or anywhere near he and the adults. On the way to Grandpa's house each Friday we attended, he would warn me against trying this again. "Do you understand?" He would bark. To which I would silently nod from my mother's lap in the front seat of our rusty old Chevy station wagon.
When he settled in at his Father's table and noticed I was there again anyway, and that my Mother had ignored the disapproval on his face, he would pinch his bushy eyebrows towards the bridge of his nose and give a short snip of a lip whistle, jerking his head in my direction and then again beyond to the living room with the other siblings and cousins.
"Floyd!" Aunt Cecelia would snap back at him. "I want the child here. Don't be so selfish." She was referring to the fact that as a spinster, she had no children to hold, much less hug to her body. She reminded my father that it was her pleasure to have me snuggled in her lap for the evening. In my later years, I thought perhaps she allowed me to stay just to irritate him. It was a ritual, my being in her lap - wherever we were - and in our family system - unusual - she was more powerful than he.
Normally, my father's behavior would empty any room of a child. And while at home I was actually terrified of his six-foot-six figure, I was already comfortably settled in Aunt Cecelia's lap. As young as I was, I understood that I was safe. Just like every other Friday card night, I was not about to move from my Aunt's embrace. Aunt Cecelia was my safe haven one night a week. I was one of five children trying to survive in a home with two miserable and screaming parents.
My parents looked to Friday nights at Grandpa's house as a break from the rigors of a poor life and too many children. Amid the card playing, cigarette smoking and whiskey drinking they and a chance to loosen up, tell racy jokes or outlandish family stories that were usually beyond my comprehension.
Because I knew I was safe in Aunt Cecelia's lap and had an understanding that alcohol had a cycle of moods; (good to bad to worse to mean to yelling and then ugly accusations) I had to take Aunt Cecelia in quickly, as if she were a famous painting and others were waiting in line to gaze at her too. I didn't want to forget any detail of her. I memorized her face and voice for those times when my parents arguments escalated to screaming matches, slamming doors and my mother's sobbing.
As soon as I could, I would gaze up at Aunt Cecelia's neck. Folds of loose white flesh danced when she laughed or coughed. Her large puffy lips left greasy red creases on the edge of her iced tea glass. I would eventually rest my head into the soft mounds of her vanilla dabbed breasts and listen intently as many glasses of ice tea and cocktail peanuts battled to be digested in her stomach.
When my father wasn't looking, I would peel my Aunt's red nail polish off and flick the peelings with my thumb and fore finger to the floor, not the least bit worried about what my father would say about this later. It was worth it; this ill placed defiance and bravery, two skills I would call upon often as I aged.
From the soft round lap of this strong but soft-hearted Aunt, I learned that sometimes taking chances had rewards that were worth the consequences, though not always so.