Thursday, January 1, 2009
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care;
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
-Clement Clarke Moore
As I sat pensively staring out the window this Christmas morning, I was holding my week-old son in my arms and giving him a bottle. This oft-repeated act done by parents the world over for centuries in and of itself was satisfying, but I couldn’t help but drift back to my own childhood memories.
Christmas has always been about family for me, even on those Christmases when I was not able to be in New York. The tug of the power of home was always greatest at this time of year, and I suspect that this is the same for many people. Above all for me it was being able to celebrate with my parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins as we had done every year since I was a boy. Any break in that tradition caused much angst as I scrambled to find (in those dark ages before cellular phones and e-mail) a payphone to call home.
There is a layering of Christmases past for me, sort of like an onion tree ornament that can be peeled off to reveal each year. Sometimes they coalesce and the good memories are revealed in an array of colors fanning out in my mind: the twinkling lights, the ubiquitous carols playing somewhere in another room, the clinking of plates and utensils, the hoisting of drinks and toasts made, the reverberations of laughter from grandparents and aunts and uncles now long gone but never forgotten.
Christmas has never been the same since my mother passed away in May 2006. I have tried to get into the holiday spirit as best as I can. I hang the stockings on the mantel, remembering how she did this for me as a child, and I feel a tug on my heart as I watch the lights reflecting off the vibrant reds and dark greens in the fabric, knowing Mom is with me even if she is not here.
So, as I sat giving my infant son a bottle, I counted my blessings. I sat in a warm house with a fire in the hearth. Numerous presents for my son and daughter rested under the tree waiting to be opened, and the music played softly in another room just as it always had in my youth. Just as my son finished his bottle and I prepared to hoist him onto my shoulder for a gentle patting to illicit his passing of gas, Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” drifted across the room and I felt a shiver of all those who were gone being present with me, seeing my son in his infancy and knowing how truly life goes on.
I recalled my father’s father telling me of the poverty he escaped from. One of eight brothers and sisters, my grandfather lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as a boy in the 1890s. There was no fireplace; there was no heating system. It was known as a “cold water flat” and they had a small coal heater in the kitchen and a stove. Strangely enough, the bathtub was also in the kitchen, which was obviously the center of family life in more ways than one. When he needed to use the toilet, he had to go all the way down the hall and hope that no one from the other five apartments on his floor was in there using it.
My grandfather slept in the same bed with this three brothers until he was old enough to get out of the house. He had to make his way in the world early on because his father died when he was in third grade, so that ended his educational journey and started him on the road to working for the rest of his life. In the summer the rooms were unbearably hot, but he and his brothers could escape the heat by going upstairs and jumping into the water tower on the roof (apparently all these buildings had them as a way to fight fires in those days). The roof was also a place to play games, including one in which they released rats caught in the traps each night. My grandfather laughed as he recalled he and his brothers emptying at least ten traps each day into the street below from the rooftop. Pity the person walking by at the time.
Christmas was a bleak time in the tenement. They never had a tree in the apartment, but the brothers would each hang an old sock on one of the bedposts in hopes of getting something from Santa Claus. They believed in celebrating the religious aspect of the day, and my grandfather said the night before Christmas always involved the whole family going to visit his grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn. Even though the famed Brooklyn Bridge was new in those days, the family preferred walking across the East River to get to Williamsburg, since each year the river froze over so solidly that it was a safe and fast path to Norna’s house. They would all go to Mass that morning and then have a modest dinner with Norna in the afternoon. Meat was rarely available, but fish and polenta were to be had and bowls of tapioca pudding for dessert.
When he returned to the apartment every year after the trip back across the frozen river, my grandfather would run into his room to check the tattered stocking that he had hung from the bedpost. Somehow Santa found a way to put a peppermint stick in the sock, and sometimes a ball or new pair of socks. Believe it or not, my grandfather thought he was blessed to get these gifts and smiled in his old age as he recalled the happiness of getting anything in those austere times.
My grandfather never felt deprived about his Christmases past and, like I feel now, he seemed to think wistfully of those days and wished he could revisit them once again. As I sat there this morning, I felt amazed at how far our family had come from those times. My parents had raised us well in a comfortable home, providing us with opportunities for college and graduate school. As I looked into my son’s eyes, I felt fortunate that I could provide him with everything I had and, hopefully, a good deal more.
When my daughter and wife came downstairs and the presents began to be torn open, I placed my son in his bassinet and went over to the fireplace, staring at his and my daughter’s brimming stockings. I touched mine and it too was filled very well, but at the top a solitary candy cane glistened in the Christmas lights. I understood my grandfather’s happiness and felt blessed in so many more ways than I could ever be able to count at that moment.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good 2009!