Biff America: Memories of a hooligan holiday |

Biff America: Memories of a hooligan holiday

Jeffrey Bergeron
Biff America

Barney and May O’Keeffe would never be confused with Mary and Joseph. Yet during a childhood of midnight Masses, Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants — my first acting gig: I played a wise man’s donkey — they are my fondest childhood holiday memory.

Much of the attraction of our yearly visit was their unusual Christmas tree. The Sunday before Christmas, eight of us would pile into the family car and make our three-hour pilgrimage to their Rhode Island home.

Along with their tree, they also had a one-armed bandit slot machine for which they gave each of my five siblings and me a roll of quarters. To be clear, this wasn’t a toy. This was a real slot machine that Barney picked up from one of the unsavory characters he regularly dealt with.

They were wealthy, by our standards, and colorful by anybody’s. I once heard my uncle described as an “Irish hooligan who hit it big.”

Barney was a short, loud and stocky man with huge hands and a diamond ring on his pinkie. They weren’t really related to my family. My father and Barney did some business together, and since the O’Keeffes had no children, they adopted us as their own.

Barney would kiss my sisters and (after faking a punch to the midsection) shake my and my brothers’ hands. Hidden in his gorilla-sized mitt was a roll of coins for the slot machine. I remember my brother Mark told me to pretend I didn’t notice the roll while shaking his hand. That’s how tough guys did it, he said.

After our greetings, we would file into the living room where cocktails would be served. My parents would have highballs, and the kids would get cokes with a cherry. We would be warned to never spill anything.

“They don’t have kids, so they aren’t used to messes,” my mum would say.

It was while gulping down our soft drinks that my siblings and I were able to gaze at a Christmas tree like none other.

Unlike all other families I knew, they didn’t have a real tree in their home. There was one Jewish family in my neighborhood, and even they had a real tree. Barney and May’s tree looked to be made of aluminum foil. And rather than lights, their tree had a spotlight placed behind a multicolored wheel that turned and caused the tree to change colors.

I thought that tree was the greatest thing in the world. It seemed so modern and expensive — something you might see at the Jetsons’ house. My siblings were not impressed. My older sister Calista called it tacky and refereed to it as an “atheist tree.” My mother corrected her by saying that our faux relatives believed in God; they just didn’t believe in pine needles on their carpet.

We were never the only family there, but we usually were the only one with kids. Along with us, there would be hard-looking men, with names like Lefty and Rocco, and their loud and gaudy wives with dyed hair and tight tops. My mother looked unadorned yet beautiful compared to those garish women.

After enjoying drinks around the tree, the men would saunter to the card room (the walls adorned with pictures of dogs playing poker) and gamble. The ladies would venture to the kitchen, smoke cigarettes, drink highballs and gossip. My siblings and I would try not to stain anything while taking turns feeding the one-armed bandit.

It is not lost on me that I’ve grown to resemble my hooligan uncle more than I do my own parents. Like Barney and May, we are without offspring and do not like messes. Our Christmas tree lives in our garage all summer, and we assembled it a week ago. It is green aluminum.

With all that is going on in the world, the holidays can be a challenging and stressful time — particularly for those living in a resort community. It takes a little more effort to recapture the magic of the seasons of yore, whether it is welcoming the new year, rejoicing in the birth of the messiah or the miracle of the one day of sacred oil that burned for eight. Or to simply to remember the childhood thrill when a roll of quarters made you feel like a rich man.

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