THE BLOG

The Only Gift Is What You Remember

12/24/2012 10:22 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2013

This is a Christmas story from way back when, in a Brooklyn house that was sold to strangers long ago, and what I sometimes wonder is if those strangers ever hear the echo of Carillo laughter from all those good times we had on Shepherd Avenue.

Every Sunday we gathered in my grandparents' basement, dozens of us, maybe more than that - nobody ever took attendance, so we'll never really know. My grandmother had five kids, and they were all off-beat followers of the rhythm method, so the cousin population was out of control.

And Christmas at Grandma's brought the frenzy to a whole other level.

We were shoulder to shoulder at the dinner table, which groaned under the weight of pasta, turkey, vegetables, sweet potatoes...the food never ended. My cousins brought their brand-new toys to the table as well, and the floor was a sea of ribbons and torn wrapping paper.

Everybody seemed to be talking at once. My Uncle Frank was chugging away on his cigar, and my father was seeking advice on repairing something from my Uncle Gene, his German-American brother-in-law. (Gene took a lot of ribbing for being a German, but whenever something broke, he was the go-to guy. Still is.)

My Uncle Sal was having one of his masterful arguments with somebody, just for the sake of argument - I swear, if you told Sal that the sun was hot, he'd soon find a way to convince you that it was actually a ball of ice - and all my cousins were yelling and laughing and shrieking, and suddenly I had to get from the table.

It was all too much - too much food, too much cigar smoke, too much noise, too much heat, too many people, too many gifts. Too much!

So I made my way out of Grandma's basement, cutting through the furnace room and up a short flight of cement steps to the tiny back yard.

How good it felt to breathe cold air! I stood in that yard without a coat on, feeling a sweet shiver go through me. I was all by myself, or thought I was. Then I heard footsteps, and turned to see my mother.

She stood there, holding herself at the elbows. She hadn't put on a coat, either. She smiled and said, "Me too."

I knew exactly what she was talking about. Wonderful as it was in Grandma's basement, she had to get away from the too-muchness of it all, just like me.

My mother is Irish-American, and when an Irish girl married into an Italian-American family in the 1950s it was easy to get swallowed up by the raucous Italian way of everything. We used to kid her that if we got a dog, it should be an Irish setter, so she wouldn't be the only Irish one in the family.

But this business of walking out into the cold to get by yourself for a little while was an Irish trait, all the way. No wonder she was happy to see me out there. I was her son, all right.

We stood side by side. "It's nice, isn't it?" she asked.

What were we looking at? Nothing much, really - stunted privet hedges, tiny backyard gardens with frost-flattened plants, and overhead clotheslines that criss-crossed the sky. On the tiny patch of ground we stood upon my father had raised chickens when he wasn't much older than me.

But everything was glazed in frost, and that gave it a magical glow in the darkening day. Down the block, the bells at St. Rita's church began tolling.

"Should we go back inside?"

"Sure, Mom."

I can't tell you what I got for Christmas last year, and I'll forget all about whatever I get this year by the middle of January. I've despised Christmas for most of my adult life - the enforced cheer, the giving of gifts to people who already have too much, the way the excessiveness obliterates the togetherness.

But I'll always love Christmas for giving me those few minutes in that chilly back yard in East New York with my mother, nearly fifty years ago. She's 82 now, and she remembers it, too.

Why? Because it was a true human connection, achieved without fuss or fanfare. That's what I call a Christmas miracle.

Charlie Carillo is a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition." Watch the trailer for his Christmas novel here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eIub9H0Ay4